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Professor makes contribution to UNESCO's declaration on climate change ethics
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 30/11/2017

​Recently the 195 member states of the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted a Declaration of Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change at its 39th session in Paris, France. Central to that process was one of Stellenbosch University's philosophy professors and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Prof Johan Hattingh.

Hattingh was invited by the Director General of UNESCO to be part of the Ad Hoc Expert Group that was tasked to formulate the draft text for the declaration. He was subsequently elected as the President of the Expert Group at its first meeting in Rabat, Morocco, in September 2016.

According to UNESCO the “declaration aims to help governments, businesses, and civil society mobilize people around shared values on climate change" and “sounds the alarm that, unless ethical principles become the basis of climate action, both climate change and responses to it could create unacceptable damage and injustice".

Since the Rabat meeting, the draft text was refined “in light of literally thousands of comments from member states". A second draft was distributed for further comments by Member States of UNESCO at an Intergovernmental Meeting in Paris.

"As President of the Expert Group consisting of 24 people representing different languages, cultures, nationalities and disciplinary fields ranging from international environmental law and climate science to social sciences, philosophy and ethics, my role was to help facilitate a consensus on ethical principles in a language that is clear, to the point, and able to communicate with a world-wide audience," says Hattingh.

"At the Rabat meeting we worked in English and French, assisted by interpreters, demonstrating there already that it is indeed possible to articulate shared ethical values related to a common threat facing everyone and every natural system on earth.

"At the Intergovernmental Meeting in Paris where the ownership of the Declaration shifted from the Expert Group to Member States, delegates from different countries developed a much broader consensus through robust face to face discussions over four days, while my role changed to that of expert advisor to the meeting. This just goes to show that nations states also can mobilize around shared values when faced with a global threat such as climate change compromising all life on earth". 

Hattingh says that one of the key messages of the Declaration is that at its core climate change is an ethical problem. It also calls for global partners to mobilise around the principles of scientific knowledge and integrity in decision-making, solidarity, sustainability, justice and equity, and a precautionary approach. The Declaration builds on the previous work of UNESCO on ethical principles in relation to climate change that was undertaken over a period of a decade by the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST). 

"I was a member of COMEST for two terms from 2004 till 2011, where I was part of a group that initially worked on environmental ethics, but given the magnitude and urgency of the problem of climate change we started to work on its ethical dimensions from 2007 onwards. Our first study on The Ethical Dimensions of Global Climate Change was published in 2010."

According to Hattingh the Declaration of Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change reinforces and gives further momentum to the historical turning point in the response to climate change that was brought about in 2015 when the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Climate Agreement, were adopted. 

“By making explicit the moral platform on which these international initiatives are based, the Declaration provides much needed guidance for the numerous and difficult choices that will have to be made urgently to implement the combined goals of sustainable development world-wide in a climate that does not threaten the future of life on earth."

"For instance, the Paris Agreement calls on nations states to substantively reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to ensure that global warming on average does not exceed 2 degrees centigrades above pre-industrial atmospheric temperatures. These reductions need to be determined on a country-by-country basis (the so-called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs), and within each country, reduction targets will have to be distributed between the sectors of society contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. It is at this level that reduction targets can start to require real sacrifices from people or groups, and it is in this context that many ethical issues emerge: Who will suffer, given certain reduction targets, and who will not? How should burdens and benefits be distributed? How can harm be avoided or minimized? How can we avoid to place additional burdens on the poor and vulnerable? 

“Calling upon nations states, corporations, international organisations, but also individuals, groups and local authorities, among others, the Declaration was thus formulated to promote responsible decision-making on all levels and in all sectors of society in order to promote justice, global partnership, inclusion, and solidarity with the poorest and most vulnerable people when it comes to climate change action," says Hattingh.

"I think the most important contribution of the Declaration lies in its articulation of a broad international consensus that we seriously need to address the layers upon layers of harm and injustice flowing from the fact that those least responsibile for the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are the most likely to become the victims of its adverse effects. 

"Following from this, the Declaration states in Article 10 that in responding to climate change priority should be given to the needs of the most vulnerable. In the Preamble the most vulnerable are specified to 'include but are not limited to displaced persons and migrants, indigenous peoples, local communities, persons with disabilities, the elderly, youth, and children'."

Click here for a copy of the full declaration.

Click here for a copy of the 2010 COMEST study on The Ethical Implications of Global Climate Change.

Photo: Prof Johan Hattingh was closely involved in the process leading up to the adoption of UNESCO's Declaration of Ethical Principles in Relation to Climate Change.