by Joseph Siegel

I have been back in New York for several days but had the good fortune to be personally involved in two interesting side events just before my departure from COP-16.  Both events focused on the important issue of climate change ethics and were cosponsored by the Penn State University Rock Ethics Institute and Collaborative Program on the Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, the University of Washington, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The goal of these events was to highlight the importance of viewing the international climate change negotiations in a framework of ethics and justice.  I was struck by the passion and enthusiasm of the attendees, some of whom were exposed to this issue for the first time.   The strong response was not surprising, as climate change presents profound and troubling ethical quandaries that force us to reckon with our humanity.  One individual, during the Q&A, commented that he couldn’t believe he had not previously thought about climate change in the context of ethics because, after hearing the speakers, it seemed so apparent.

While the UNFCCC and negotiations at COP-16 do not explicitly recognize ethics, there is a subtext of ethical principles.  But the group of ethics experts discussed the importance of making ethics more explicit.  Consider the intergenerational impacts of climate change.  What duties, obligations, and responsibilities do we have to future generations?  In addition, what ethical responsibilities do we have to current generations in developing countries, and to other species?  What should guide our thinking as we distribute emissions under a global CO2e gigaton ceiling?  To what extent should we take into account historic responsibility, global poverty, and expectations in light of current standard of living?  These are but a few of a host of important ethical questions to consider as nations come together to address the vexing problem of climate change.   UNESCO has issued a report, The Ethical Principles of Global Climate Change, as well as an interim report, Towards an Ethical Framework for Climate Change Policies, that inform these issues.  Both are available at  The Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State produced a white paper on climate change ethics,, and has a blog on the subject, at   Information about the all-day side event that I participated in, and helped moderate, will be posted on the Penn State climateethics blog in the near future.  The panels covered ethical issues in light of the Copenhagen Accord commitments, ethics and adaptation, obligations of sub-national governments, businesses and individuals, the role of higher education, ethics and gender, and ethical issues related to scientific disinformation.

As COP-16 draws to a close and it appears that we will not have a comprehensive package even though there may be meaningful forward movement on some issues, I’m reminded of the bright blue shirts worn by many young people at COP-16 that said “You have been negotiating my whole life — You cannot tell me you need more time.” I’m also reminded of the comments I heard from representatives of countries that might not exist in a few decades.  And I wonder how our global vision can be so blurred as to not see that our action, and inaction, on climate change raises profound ethical questions.