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The ethical principles of climate change

09 August 2019

Climate change not only threatens our ecosystems, it undermines the foundation of our fundamental rights, deepens inequalities and creates new forms of injustice. Adapting to climate change and trying to mitigate its impacts are not just a matter of scientific knowledge and political will; it also demands a broader view of a complex situation.

In order to help Member States and other stakeholders to make appropriate decisions and implement effective policies for sustainable development, adaptation to climate change and the mitigation of its negative effects, UNESCO adopted a Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change in November 2017.

Ethics constitute the substantial core of any commitment. As a mobilizing force, ethics can steer action, facilitate arbitration, resolve conflicting interests, and establish priorities. Ethics have the capacity to connect theory with practice, general principles with political will, and global awareness with local actions.

The Declaration adopted by UNESCO is based on six ethical principles:

Prevention of harm: To better anticipate the consequences of climate change and implement responsible and effective policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, including through  low greenhouse gas emissions development and initiatives to foster climate resilience.

Precautionary approach: Do not postpone the adoption of measures to prevent or mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on the grounds of a lack of definitive scientific evidence.

Equity and justice: Respond to climate change in a way that benefits all, in a spirit of justice and equity. Allow those who are unjustly affected by climate change (due to insufficient measures or inadequate policies) to access judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy.

Sustainable development: Adopt new paths for development that make it possible to sustainably preserve our ecosystems, while building a more just and responsible society that is more resilient to climate change. Special attention must be paid to areas where the humanitarian consequences of climate change can be dramatic, such as food, energy, water insecurity, the oceans, desertification, land degradation and natural disasters.

Solidarity: Support, individually and collectively, the people and groups most vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, particularly in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Strengthen timely co-operative action in various areas, including technology development and transfer, knowledge-sharing and capacity-building.

Scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making: Strengthen the interface between science and policy to optimally aid decision-making and the implementation of relevant long-term strategies, including risk prediction. Promote the independence of science and widely disseminate its findings to as many people as possible, for the benefit of all.

UNESCO has long-standing experience in environmental ethics, supported by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), created in  1998. As an advisory body and a forum for reflection, COMEST has published a series of reports over the past decade, that have helped to inform public debate. Its 2015 report served as the basis for the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change.

Ethical principles for climate change: adaptation and mitigation (COMEST)

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