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Declaration on Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change: Questions and Answers

Question 1: What is the Declaration on Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change about?

World leaders have called climate change the biggest challenge of the 21st century. This Declaration speaks to the responsibility to address the challenge, and reinforces ethics at the centre of the discussion.

It sets out six ethical principles:

  • Prevention of harm
  • Precautionary approach
  • Equity and justice
  • Sustainable development
  • Solidarity
  • Scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making

The text anticipates that agreed principles should be applied through education and international cooperation. Great care has been taken to achieve no duplication, no re-interpretation nor contradiction of international negotiated texts (notably the United Nations Framework Agreement on Climate Change, the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement), which are the source for states’ commitments.

Question 2: Why do we need a declaration of ethical principles in relation to climate change?

Climate change is fundamentally an ethical issue. If failure to act could have catastrophic implications, responses to climate change that are not thought through carefully, with ethical implications in mind, have the potential to devastate entire communities, create new paradigms of inequity and misdistribution, and render even more vulnerable those peoples who have already found themselves uprooted by other man-made political and ideological struggles.

Secular and religious organizations, including from the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and other philosophies and faiths, have issued declarations making the moral, ethical, environmental, economic and social case for tackling global warming.

In addition, this declaration is the first global and purely ethical declaration adopted by the United Nations on this topic. As such, it may clarify a set of universal principles that could help us activate international solidarity, and coordinate action across cultures and societies. The UNESCO Declaration is a complementary tool for communicating what is also underpinning the multilateral negotiated instruments.

Question 3: What is the added-value?

UNESCO’s work complements work on climate change being done within the United Nations system, for instance by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The aim here is to express the underlying ethical principles.

The emphasis is on making this document a guide, or even a “check-list” to help decision-makers address climate change concerns.

There is a simplicity in the text, with only six memorable ethical principles: (1) prevention of harm; (2) precautionary approach; (3) justice and equity; (4) sustainable development; (5) solidarity; (6) scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making.

There is some novelty in the text too. Given that it is produced in the heart of UNESCO, it may not be surprising that it asserts that science to inform decision-making should be understood as an ethical principle in relation to climate change.

Likewise typical of UNESCO, the text anticipates that agreed principles should be applied through education and international cooperation.

Question 4: What is the link between this Declaration and the 2030 Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals?

Sustainable Development Goal 13 is a plea to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” for which it sets the target “to integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning”.
Adopting this declaration provides guidance to decision-making when actions are considered and taken in relation to climate change: it is necessarily aiming at supporting high quality in these urgent actions.

The World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), a scientific advisory body at UNESCO, has clarified through its reports that ethics standards should help link climate change action to all the rest of the goals and targets for sustainable development, because there is interlinkage between the SDGs.

Question 5: Does the declaration have any practical purpose?

Yes, UNESCO believes that agreeing universally on ethical principles in relation to climate change will underpin ambitious voluntary commitments by 195 countries, which adopted the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to combat the threat of global warming.

The declaration can support each State to scale its commitment accordingly in order to meet the need, in light of shared responsibilities.

A declaration could also be a powerful means to support and advance coordinated joint action, among not only States but also other stakeholders including civil society organizations, academics, and local communities for example. It is thus a means to mobilize and to sensitize people on universal principles and concerns that go beyond the mere technical discourses on climate change.

Question 6: Why is UNESCO involved in promoting the declaration?

UNESCO has a leading role globally as a UN Agency with a specialized mandate in the sciences, education, culture and communications. Its constitutional aim is to advance international peace and the common welfare of humankind through strengthening “intellectual and moral solidarity”.

Member States have mandated UNESCO with promoting ethical science: science which shares the benefits of progress for all, protects the planet from ecological collapse and which creates a solid basis for peaceful cooperation.

As early as 2007, it was noted during debates at UNESCO that ethical and social consideration of climate change action required more reflection. Plans for a UNESCO declaration on the ethics of climate change mitigation and adaptation were motivated by a decade of work on climate change by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST).

UNESCO has hosted the International Bioethics Committee (IBC) since 1993, and COMEST since 1998. From then, they have been the only global, multidisciplinary and pluralistic fora for bioethics and ethics of science and technology.

UNESCO has a leading role at the United Nations level and globally in the field of bioethics and ethics of science and technology due to UNESCO’s normative instruments – Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003), Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005), UNESCO Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers (2017) – and its capacity-building programmes to implement those instruments. UNESCO’s normative instruments are, in many cases, the only global instruments available constituting an ethical framework for science and a basis for regional and national legislation in these domains. They have been cited by the European Court of Human Rights and other Regional Supreme Courts on the subjects concerned.

Question 8: What other Declarations have been initiated by UNESCO?

Here are some examples of important Declarations that UNESCO has initiated:

  • Declaration of Principles of International Cultural Co-operation (1966)
  • Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978)
  • Declaration on Fundamental Principles concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media to Strengthening Peace and International Understanding, to the Promotion of Human Rights and to Countering Racialism, apartheid and incitement to war (1978)
  • Declaration of Principles on Tolerance (1995)
  • Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generations towards Future Generations (1997)
  • Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997)
  • Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (2001)
  • International Declaration on Human Genetic Data (2003)
  • Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005)


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