Sustainable Development

Ethics are "missing dimension" in climate debate, says IPCC head

In Brief: 
  • During September's UN Summit on Climate Change, NGOs issued an appeal emphasizing the moral and ethical dimensions of global warming
  • At a breakfast launch, Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, IPCC chairman, spoke about the need for a groundswell of grassroots action
  • Dr. Pachauri expects future IPCC assessments to show the climate is changing faster than expected

NEW YORK - The inequities and injustices that are likely to occur on a global level because of climate change mean that world leaders must carefully examine the moral and ethical dimensions of global warming, said Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"The impacts of climate change are going to be inequitable, unequal, and severe in many parts of the world," said Dr. Pachauri, addressing a breakfast meeting at the Bahá'í International Community offices on 23 September 2009.

"We have to think at a much higher level. And I think this is where ethics comes in so critically as the missing dimension in this debate," he said.

Dr. Pachauri's comments came at the official launch of an appeal, directed at world leaders gathered at September's UN Summit on Climate Change in New York, to emphasize the importance of the moral and ethical dimensions of global warming and its impact in their deliberations.

The appeal was drafted by the Bahá'í International Community and has been signed by 25 non-governmental organizations, religious groups, and policy institutes. The document calls on world leaders to "consider deeply the ethical and moral questions at the root of the climate change crisis."

"The quest for climate justice is not a competition for limited resources but part of an unfolding process towards greater degrees of unity among nations as they endeavor to build a sustainable, just and peaceful civilization," the appeal states.

Tahirih Naylor, a Bahá'í representative to the United Nations, said the purpose of the document is to call attention to the fact that climate change is more than a political, economic, and scientific problem.

"The impacts of climate change are going to be inequitable, unequal, and severe in many parts of the world. We have to think at a much higher level. And I think this is where ethics comes in so critically as the missing dimension in this debate."

- Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

"There is a moral and ethical dimension to climate change that must be addressed," said Ms. Naylor. "For example, we know that wealthy nations have contributed more to climate problems than the poor nations, and so there is an element of justice that must be considered in any long-term solution."

Dr. Pachauri said that while science can provide the building blocks for understanding the impact and likelihood of climate change, it will be important for citizens' groups and individuals to provide the motivation for action.

"I feel you really cannot rely on the leaders, you really cannot rely on the nation states," he said. "You really need a groundswell of grassroots action and grassroots consciousness on what needs to be done. If that is happening, then leaders will follow."

He encouraged the representatives of civil society gathered for the breakfast meeting to continue to work to keep the moral and ethical issues front and center in the climate debate.

"You have to persevere and persist," he said. "If you do, you certainly will be able to change the nature of the debate."

He said the long-term impact of climate change on future generations must be taken into account. "Ethics demands that action has to be taken early," he said.

Dr. Pachauri also said he expects that whatever its outcome, the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December was unlikely to be the final word on the subject.

"When the IPCC's fifth assessment comes out in 2013 or 2014, there will be a major revival of interest in action that has to be taken," said Dr. Pachauri, speaking of the periodic assessments rendered by the group of more than 400 scientists around the world that he leads. "People are going to say, 'My God, we are going to have to take action much faster than we had planned.'"

As chairman of the IPCC, Dr. Pachauri accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded jointly to the IPCC and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore for their work in warning of the potential impact of global warming.

Among the organizations that have signed the appeal are the International Peace Research Association, Oxfam International, Society of Catholic Medical Missionaries, Solar Cookers International, Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN), and the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

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