In September last year I was part of an Ad Hoc Expert Group convened by UNESCO in Rabat, Morocco, to draft a declaration on a set of “ethical principles in relation to climate change”. This declaration was formally adopted by the 195 UNESCO member states on 15 November.

climate ethical PC
Launch of the Ethical Declaration at COP23

UNESCO is perhaps best known for selecting World Heritage Sites, and is hardly the first UN body you’d associate with climate issues, so you might wonder why UNESCO was getting involved. Well, UNESCO carries the baton in the UN system on issues such as science, ethics and philosophy. And, with climate change threatening our intellectual and physical heritage, it starts to make sense.

Why an ethical declaration?

Even so, to be honest at first I did not clearly understand why on earth UNESCO needed to produce such a declaration. There has been no lack of normative statements and declarations both from the UN system and others. And as my colleague exclaimed: Another ethical declaration on climate change? After all, what is global cooperation on climate action but an ethical imperative?

Well, for one thing, I found it useful to contrast the idea of a dedicated ethical declaration with a political declaration, which imposes a normative political view and, based on that view and a political agreement, urges certain actions mostly in the form of external pressure: “Member States are urged to ..:”, “Governments must …”, or “All stakeholders should …”

This is all very well, but what about the grey areas? What about those cases – and there are many in relation to climate change – where climate actions have potentially heavy costs for one group or another? And what if the political environment that spawned the political agreement changes? Can humanity agree on the longer-term fundamental premises for action? Such concerns drove the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted in 1948, and still going strong.

An ethical declaration, in contrast, says: We believe that this and this fundamental moral premise is valid – let’s say humanity’s dependence on the earth system, or the sanctity of life, or the right to education – then these are the guiding principles and applications we believe follow. The principles are not politically binding, but they if you do not follow them, we invite you to tell us and the rest of the world why.

There are, of course, ethical principles scattered through the UNFCCC and other international agreements related to climate change. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also goes a long way towards highlighting the need to balance the many aspects of development – and the new declaration explicitly relies on it for this (in Article 4 on Sustainable Development, and again in Article 14 on International Cooperation). But once again, climate issues are spread across the 2030 Agenda.

Therefore, one of the main purposes of the new declaration, and the process leading up to it, was comprehensively and systematically to set out these principles that are scattered through or underpin the UNFCCC and other climate- and sustainability-related agreements.

What’s in the Declaration?

Six categories of principles are covered in the Declaration:

  • Prevention of harm
  • Precautionary approach
  • Equity and justice
  • Sustainable development
  • Solidarity
  • Scientific knowledge and integrity

The Declaration then moves on to elaborate how these principles could be applied in different domains: in science, technology and innovation systems; in education, in risk management processes, in public awareness raising, in international cooperation and in governance for accountability.

As most such high-level declarations, this Declaration does not really address trade-offs or potential inconsistencies between these ambitious agendas. It simply states that “The Declaration needs to be understood as a whole, and principles are to be understood as complementary and interrelated. Each principle is to be considered in the context of the other principles, as appropriate and relevant in the circumstances.” (Article 16)

Perhaps in practice there will need to be a bit more critical discussion and assessment around whether there can be tensions or even clashes between, for example, applying the precautionary approach and safe guarding scientific integrity.

Will it all matter?

I’ll also admit that there were a few times in the drafting meeting last September when I wondered how I ended up in just the kind of protracted committee wordsmithing that I have so many times pitied the poor negotiators in the COPs.

At the same time, joining the expert group gave me a chance to meet a really fascinating blend of personalities and knowledge, from places as diverse as Cuba, Egypt, Lebanon, Russia and Zimbabwe. I also got to learn principles of ethics and morality from world-leading philosophers over coffee, and how traditions of ethics scholarship differ between countries. And all in the amazingly elegant and inspirational premises of the Academie Hassan II Des Sciences et Téchniques in Rabat.

I believe something really valuable did come out of that inspiring environment. Through this Declaration of ethical principles, we make an appeal to not only political leaders, but in fact all humans, to reach down within themselves and derive their positions from moral beliefs. It is a complement to political declarations and agreements. It aims to trigger an entirely different source of behaviour.

And while the Declaration has no binding force, it may not be completely toothless: previous UNESCO ethical declarations have been referenced in court rulings, including the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, which was adopted by UNESCO members in 1997 and later endorsed by the UN General Assembly.

If it is properly promoted, this Declaration could be a useful reference point in international political processes regarding climate change and broader sustainability. In today’s international politics, where certain governments are hurrying to challenge or even abandon international agreements, non-binding but more deep-rooted declarations like this could be another important way to shore up hard-won progress.