Madrid COP 25 Event on the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change



Climate change has certain features that more than any other environmental problem scream for attention that it should be understood and responded to as an ethical problem. These features include that it is a problem that: (1) has mostly been caused by developed nations; (2) most threatens poor vulnerable people and nations which have done comparatively little to cause the problem; (3) creates harms to the most vulnerable that include potential catastrophic losses of life and damages to ecological systems on which life depends; (4) those people who are most vulnerable to it cannot depend on petitioning their governments for protection, their best hope is that those most responsible for raising atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations will respond to their ethical and moral duties to reduce their emissions to their fair share of safe global emissions; and, (5) because GHGs from any country mix well in the atmosphere, they thereby are contributing to rising atmospheric concentrations which are responsible for harming people and ecological systems far beyond their boarders.

Yet nations, and even most environmental NGOs have largely ignored evaluating nations’ responses to climate change through an ethical lens but have usually simply responded to the arguments of opponents of  climate change which largely have been claims that proposed policies on climate change are unsupportable because: (1) the policies would create  unacceptable costs to the national economy or a specific national industry; or, (2) the policies were not justifiable because of scientific uncertainty about alleged adverse climate change impacts. And so, when opponents of climate change argued in opposition to proposed climate change policies on the grounds of unacceptable costs that the policy would create,  proponents often responded by simply asserting responses to climate change would create jobs rather than helping citizens understand that behaviors that cause violations of human rights, kills others or destroys ecological systems on which life depends cant be justified on the grounds that the cessation of these destructive behaviors would impose costs on those engaged in the destructive behavior. In response to the scientific uncertainty arguments made by opponents of proposed climate change policies, proponents of climate policies usually simply make claims such as 97% of climate sciencentists support the consensus view while ignoring the fact that that every country in the world agreed in the 1992 climate threaty that scientific uncertainty should not be used as a excuse for taking protective action.

By not helping citizens see the morally indefensible problems with orguments made by opponents of climate change policies, proponents of climate change policies are failing to motivate those who are not motivated by the scientific and economic technical discoures which have dominated climate change policy controversies and which are not likely to mobilize public concern, strong emotion, or activism that fuel strong public social movements. (Wetts, 2019)

A recent paper by sociologist Rachel Wetts of Brown University found that of 1768 press releases about climate change issues only 3.4% attempted to motivate climate responses on the basis of moral obligations. (Wetts, 2019)

On December 12th at the Madrid COP 25 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNESCO, in cooperation with the Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, sponsored a panel on the urgency of getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations to respond to climate change. This panel On the Urgency of  and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change was part of a UNESCO event entitled Changing Minds, Not the Climate,  Science, Knowledge Systems, and Ethics for Enhanced Ambition and Resilience. 

The ethics panel discussed numerous specific policy decisions on climate issues that raised important ethical issues, yet tragically the ethical problems with the arguments made by opponents of climate policies were rarely identified. Despite the fact that arguments made in opposition to the proposed climate policy issues would not survive minimum ethical scrutiny if they were subjected to ethical critique, the ethical problems with the arguments made against climate policies are rarely identified. Furthermore, unless citizens spotted the ethical problems with their nation’s response to climate change they could not effectively critique their nation’s response to climate change.  For instance, every national GHG reduction target is implicitly a position of the national government on how much harm the government deems it is acceptable to impose on vulnerable people and nations because every ton of GHG emissions makes the harms worse, and every target is also implicitly a position on the nation’s fair share of a carbon budget that the entire world must live within to prevent a warming limit goal from being exceeded.  Yet these ethical problems with national climate change responses have been infrequently part of national climate debates.   The speakers on the Madrid COP 25 panel on the urgency of getting traction for ethics in climate change policy formation were

  • Donald A. Brown, Scholar In Residence, Sustainability Ethics and Law, Widener University Commonwealth Law School (USA) who explained the urgency of getting traction for ethical principles to guide government responses to climate change both to prevent climate catastophe and to critically evaluate the arguments of climate change policy opponents;
  • Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq., Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics, and Law, Chicago (USA) who gave numerous examples of specific climate change policy controversies that raise obvious but often unacknowledged ethical issues;
  • Sébastien Duyck, Research Fellow, Institute of European and International Economic Law, University of Bern who explained efforts to get traction for human rights obligations in climate change policy formation; and,
  • Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, Professor of  Climatology and Environmental Sciences, “Université Catholique de Louvain” (Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium), former IPCC Vice-Chair (2008-2015), member of the Royal Academy of Belgium who epained his experiences with getting the conclusions of IPCC which should trigger moral obligations accepted.

In December of 2017, UNESCO adopted the Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change, which sets out a number of important ethical principles to guide political decision-making and formulation of cross-cutting public policies around the world. Among the proclaimed six ethical principles, the Declaration emphasizes the links between justice, sustainability and solidarity that could support countries to scale their national commitments and coordinate action across cultures. The Madrid panel discussed why finding ways for getting nations to comply with their ethical obligations is indispensable to avoid catastrophic climate change, and explored strategies for getting traction for ethical principles in guiding national responses to climate change.  Furthermore, the panel discussed that although there are other important and binding sources of international law containing many well settled ethical principles which are relevant to national responses to climate change such as the “no harm,” “precautionary,” and “polluter pays” principles, duties of nations to protect human rights, and adopt emissions reduction targets at levels to prevent dangerous climate change on the basis of “equity,” and common but differentiated responsibilities, nations are ignoring these principles in formulating national policies.

The UNESCO Madrid COP 25 panel reviewed evidence that most nations are still ignoring these ethical principles in national climate change policy formation. The UNESCO panel concluded by inviting individuals to submit ideas about how to get traction for ethics in national responses to climate change.

Until UNESCO sets up a website on these issues, individuals with ideas about how to get traction for ethical guidance for climate policy formation should submit comments to for the time being.


Donald A. Brown

Scholar in Residence,

Sustainability Ethics and Law

Widener University Commonwealth Law School


Wetts, Rachel, 2019. “Models and Morals: Elite-Oriented and Value-Neutral Discourse Dominates American Organizations’ Framings of Climate Change.” Social Forces. Published online:

2 thoughts on “Madrid COP 25 Event on the Urgency of and Getting Traction for Ethical Principles to Guide National Responses to Climate Change

  1. Good morning,
    I was wondering if you are planning any event / forum on Climate Change and Ethics for the Glasgow COP. This is an area I am particularly interested in and as I live around 30 miles from the SECC in Glasgow would like to be involved if possible.
    with best wishes,
    Sheelagh O’Reilly

  2. apologies – I think I may be asking the question twice. I was wondering if you are planning a forum / discussion on climate and ethics at the Glasgow COP. I live not far away (around 30 miles) and have a particular interest in this topic. Would love to hear if there are any plans and how to get involved.
    with best wishes,
    Sheelagh O’Reilly

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