Climate Ethics and the Copenhagen Summit

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 22. March 2011 - 0:06
Dahl, Arthur Lyon


Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

For a separate report on Bahá'í International Community and International Environment Forum participation in Copenhagen, see

"Concern for justice protects the task of defining progress from the temptation to sacrifice the well-being of the generality of humankind -- and even of the planet itself -- to the advantages which technological breakthroughs can make available to privileged minorities....  Above all, only development programmes that are perceived as meeting their needs and as being just and equitable in objective can hope to engage the commitment of the masses of humanity, upon whom implementation depends. The relevant human qualities such as honesty, a willingness to work, and a spirit of co-operation are successfully harnessed to the accomplishment of enormously demanding collective goals when every member of society -- indeed every component group within society -- can trust that they are protected by standards and assured of benefits that apply equally to all."

Governments have been building an international response to climate change since before the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed. However changes in the climate have accelerated faster than the diplomatic process. This paper discusses some of the ethical issues behind the intergovernmental process, gives a few impressions of the process as it played out at the Copenhagen Climate Change summit in December 2009, and looks ahead at ways to respond.

The challenge of climate ethics for diplomacy

International diplomacy has too often meant defending national interests, to the inevitable advantage of the rich and powerful. This fundamentally undermines trust in the diplomatic process. While this is understandable in many contexts, it is difficult to justify with respect to an issue like climate change that threatens all nations and peoples. Most observers attribute the continuing slow progress in negotiations to the lack of trust among the parties. The Kyoto Protocol was not so much a significant effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a confidence-building measure in which the industrialized countries that had caused climate change through their past emissions agreed to take the first steps to address the problem. Their failure in most cases to meet their targets showed that governments could not be trusted to respect their commitments, undermining further negotiations.

Furthermore, the failure of the intergovernmental process to accelerate in response to the increasing concern in the scientific community over evidence of deepening climate change impacts discredits the intergovernmental political process itself in the eyes of the public. It is therefore essential that agreement on the inevitably complex intergovernmental response to climate change should include and be accompanied by trust-building measures both between the parties and with respect to wider groups of stakeholders and ultimately all of humanity.

Climate change is one symptom of the present materialistic economic system, which has been sacrificing the well-being of the generality of humankind and of the planet itself to the advantages which technological breakthroughs have made available to privileged minorities (BIC, 1995). The persistence of this unjust situation makes any consensus on solutions difficult if not impossible. Climate change is aggravating poverty and global inequality, so action on climate change cannot be dissociated from progress on these larger problems.

A response to both of these issues must include consideration of the pertinent ethical principles. If governments can first agree on the relevant principles or human values, they can then be guided by them (Universal House of Justice, 1985). This can provide the fundamental ethical basis for agreement on the technical details and the necessary balance of interests. Agreement on principle is an important trust-building measure, as it provides a common touchstone for all parties in identifying the collective interest in various proposals.

Responding to climate change requires a common but differentiated commitment and effort from every country and every human being.  Only responses to climate change that meet everyone's needs and are just and equitable in objective can hope to engage the commitment of the masses of humanity upon whom implementation depends (BIC, 1995). It will be essential for the outcomes of the negotiating process to include not only the technical details necessary to make international mechanisms work, but also some strong simple standards reflecting justice and equity that will ensure that the vulnerable are protected and that benefits of action on climate change apply equally to all (BIC, 1995). A consensus on this will enable the massive mobilization and spirit of cooperation necessary to meet the collective goal of protecting the well-being of humankind in the face of the common threat of climate change impacts.

What is just and equitable needs to be differentiated by the areas of action. Since adaptation is a necessary response to the effects of the past and present emissions of greenhouse gases, an equitable solution would reflect historic responsibility for all past emissions. On the other hand, mitigation of future emissions would more logically need to reflect per capita rights to and responsibilities for emissions on the basis that each human being should have the same right to the planet's potentials and limits. In considering capacity for action, countries with a larger share of total emissions should also be in the best position to take significant action to reduce them, as there are often economies of scale. Contributions to financial mechanisms should reflect both the level of responsibility for causing the problem (the polluter pays principle) and the ability to pay (as reflected, for example, in national systems of graduated taxation) if they are to be seen as just and equitable. An approach based on ethical principles can thus help to refine the practical significance of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Actions for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD) should not only aim for mitigation of carbon releases from vegetation and land-use changes, and for adaptation of natural systems to the pressures of climate change, they should also aim to preserve as much as possible of the earth's biodiversity and natural order, as required in the Convention on Biological Diversity. This would protect against distortions such as the replacement of natural vegetation by plantation forestry or agriculture. Action should reinforce stewardship through traditional indigenous ownership and management as this has generally proven more sustainable as well as equitable.

There is also a need for information mechanisms to explain in simple terms the measures adopted by the parties and to justify them with reference to clear ethical criteria. This can provide the basis for campaigns of public information to build public acquiescence and support for measures that will require significant changes and often sacrifices.

Such an ethical analysis can help us to understand what happened at the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009.

The Copenhagen Conference COP15

The increasing scientific evidence of accelerating climate change and the resulting media attention built a momentum for the negotiating process that spread far beyond governments, despite a tiny fringe of climate sceptics and a major effort at disinformation by vested interests in some countries. As a result, the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen grew far beyond its nominal role as the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to become a summit on the future of the planet. Registration for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had to be closed early at 15,000, when total registered participants including government delegations and the press reached 34,000 for a conference centre with a maximum capacity of 15,000. Thousands more came to Copenhagen for activities outside the official conference including an NGO-organized Klimaforum and various side events and demonstrations.

The negotiating process itself was complex and confusing, with two parallel tracks under the Kyoto Protocol and under the Convention, to accommodate the United States which refused to be involved in the Kyoto process. There was an extreme contrast between the desperate hope of those outside, most of whom saw urgent action to change the system essential to avoid widespread chaos and suffering from run-away climate change, and diplomats under instructions from their capitals to defend their national (mostly economic) interests. The gap between what science said was absolutely necessary in order to have even a 50:50 chance of avoiding serious climate damage, and what politicians said was politically and economically realistic, could not have been more obvious.

From the desperate plea for survival raised by the tiny island nation of Tuvalu (pop. 12,000), through the laborious process of negotiating phrase by phrase of text, punctuated by leaked "secret" documents, walk-outs, and increasing despair at so little progress as time was running out, to the dramatic conclusion when the American president barged into a meeting of the presidents of China, Brazil, India and South Africa and hammered out an agreement to be "noted" by the conference, the conference itself was memorable. It showed the strengths and weaknesses of a United Nations process where every country has a say, and science and civil society can make contributions, but decisions can only be taken by consensus of 192 countries. There was great frustration at the end when the outcome was imposed by five large countries, and the rest of the world, including even Europe and Russia, was marginalized. Even the UN Secretary-General acknowledged the weaknesses of the process and the need to find something better. Whether the resulting Copenhagen Agreement is positive or negative in its ultimate outcome, only time will tell.

The process of responding to the challenge of climate change, as illustrated in Copenhagen, can be looked at from several perspectives: the process, the progress, the growing ethical awareness, the challenges ahead, and what each of us can do about it.

The process

Climate change is a global problem that is demonstrating the failure of the present system of sovereign nation states and is beginning to force changes in that system. An international process of voluntary negotiations requiring consensus is held hostage to countries using procedural mechanisms to block collective progress in the defense of national self-interest. Copenhagen made these weaknesses more apparent. The traditional blocks of "developed" and "developing"countries began to break down. Extensive diplomatic negotiations could not find a way forward. A handful of political leaders took an initiative to avoid going away empty-handed. Hopefully this will lead to the development of mechanisms in which governments can work together in the interests of all humanity. The tragedy is that every delay will make the transition more difficult and increase human suffering and environmental damage.


There was some progress on addressing deforestation as a cause of greenhouse gas emissions, and some significant financial commitments to help poorer countries adapt to the inevitable changes already happening or to come. Efforts will continue to agree on each country's responsibilities to reduce the causes of climate change, regardless of their level of development. However national actions so far announced will fall far short of what is needed to prevent dangerous damage to the climate system.

Ethical awareness

The only way the divergent views of the nations of the world can be reconciled in the face of the common challenge of climate change is to identify the underlying ethical values or spiritual principles that they all agree are of primary importance and then to be guided by them. A shared vision must first be ethical. It was encouraging in Copenhagen to see climate justice and equity referred to increasingly as a necessary basis for agreement.

The Baha'i International Community has been working actively on the moral and ethical challenges of climate change, the opportunity it presents to move towards improved forms of international governance, the importance of gender justice, and the roles of both science and religion in addressing climate change. In Copenhagen, it called on member states to show moral courage and leadership and demonstrate a commitment to the prosperity of all, particularly the most vulnerable populations, as they strived to reach a fair, ambitious and binding agreement. It joined with others in a collaborative programme on the ethical dimensions of climate change that underlined that this was a critical missing element in the negotiations ( The recent launch of action plans on climate change by the major religions of the world at Windsor on 2-4 November 2009 shows the power of mobilization based on spiritual and ethical principles (

Challenges ahead

For governments and their diplomats and political leaders, there is a lot of work ahead crafting an agreement and intergovernmental mechanisms that are seen by all to be just and equitable between large and small, rich and poor. For business, where much of the potential for innovation and investment lies, there is a responsibility to rise to the challenge of making a rapid transition to renewable energy sources, increasing energy efficiency, and supporting an ethical reorientation of the economic system. The European Baha'i Business Forum issued a statement during the conference ( calling on business to lead in finding solutions to climate change issues.

Climate change is a further demonstration that we are reaching the limits to growth (Meadows et al., 2004), All the major drivers of the growth paradigm (population growth, fossil fuel subsidy, discovery of new natural resources), except technological innovation, will end in the next few decades. The challenge to survive this transition is to shift to a dynamic, just and thriving social order with an economic system that is strongly altruistic and cooperative in nature, provides meaningful employment and helps to eradicate poverty in the world (BIC, 1998).

Climate change, sea level rise and resource scarcity are also expected to produce a massive displacement of populations in the years ahead, possibly hundreds of millions. This will challenge us to replace the present rejection of immigration with a positive response to those whose human rights to well-being and security have been violated by our failure to respond in time to climate change.

Causing a major flow of displaced persons is certainly an ethical challenge of responsibility, but so is receiving all these displaced people. Immigration is a very sensitive issue in most countries and presents a fundamental challenge to particularistic, egocentric, nationalistic and culture-centered value systems which feel threatened by immigration. There is also the challenge for the displaced from the risk of losing their cultural identity when uprooted from their environment. Do they assimilate, or maintain their diversity? A value system centred on the oneness of humanity and unity in diversity is the obvious framework for solutions to such problems.

Part of the response will have to be in governance at the global level. We may ultimately need something like a world migration organization equivalent to the World Trade Organization, tasked with lowering barriers to the free movement of people in an equitable manner towards the Earth as one country. It will be necessary to determine which regions have the ecological capacity to receive more people, who will pay for the costs of resettlement, and how to organize such movements in a constructive way to avoid violence and chaos.

At a more practical level, community educational activities of the kind being developed by Baha'i institutes around the world are the kind of mechanisms needed to rebuild a sense of community among people of diverse origins by building attachment to universal human values. This is a grass-roots process of community building for unity in diversity based on ethical principles of the oneness of humankind and the recognition that the Earth is one country. As climate change and other perturbations start to mix human populations on a scale never before experienced, the tools Baha'is are now developing through action, reflection and learning at the local level will be essential to weld a disordered humanity back into functioning communities and societies.

What we can do

Much of the climate ethics debate has focused on ethical principles and questions involved in the intergovernmental debate at the global level, but this is not so relevant to the individual and community levels where many NGOs work and where public motivation is required. There has been much discussion of the ethics of reducing consumption and adopting more sustainable lifestyles, but this is mostly pertinent to those in developed countries or who aspire to the same material development. For this target group, moral and ethical principles developed by faith-based groups can make an important contribution.

Scientific information, especially negative information about environmental damage and human threats, is insufficient to motivate fundamental changes in behaviour. Ethical, moral and spiritual principles that touch the heart as well as the mind can be a much more powerful force for transforming lifestyles. A recognition of the importance of the social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of human life and development can provide a positive vision of the future to replace the hollowness of the consumer society, a vision of a world worth working for. This can include both the advantages of a materially-simpler lifestyle for those responsible for more than their fair share of greenhouse gas emissions, and alternative pathways to sustainable development for the poor. Both would contribute to the ever-advancing civilization that can be possible if spiritual and ethical principles become the foundation for our future action.

Since everyone is to some extent responsible for causing climate change, our best response will be to cultivate the values, attitudes and skills that will lead to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment (BIC, 2008). The Bahá'í International Community provides one example of long-standing environmental engagement and a commitment to mobilize action from the grass-roots in response to the challenges of climate change. Its Seven Year Plan of Action on Climate Change (BIC, 2009) calls on us all to become aware of the challenges represented by climate change and to study the spiritual principles relevant to our relationship to the environment, so that we can find ways to respond that are appropriate to our own situation and community. We particularly need to educate children and youth, as they will be the future leaders on this issue in the decades ahead. This is to be integrated into the core activities of the institute process in all Bahá'í communities around the world.


There is clearly no single answer to the necessary human response to the challenges of climate change, but many answers from all of us, individually and collectively. The outcomes from Copenhagen will require a significant effort from governments, civil society, business and the general public to be implemented effectively, and ethical principles can guide all of these in the right direction.


Bahá'í International Community (1995). The Prosperity of Humankind. Bahá'í International Community, Office of Public Information, Haifa, 1995

Bahá'í International Community (1998). Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London.

Bahá'í International Community (2008). Seizing the Opportunity: Redefining the Challenge of Climate Change. Initial Considerations of the Bahá'í International Community. Bahá'í International Community's United Nations Office, New York.

Bahá'í International Community (2009). Bahá'í International Community's Seven-Year Plan of Action on Climate Change

Meadows, Donella, Jorgen Randers and Dennis Meadows (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, Vermont

Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, 1985.


Last updated 11 January 2010