Thursday, August 27, 2009

Expansion of COMEST

UNESCO's World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST) is an advisory body and forum of reflection. Since it was created in 1998 it has been responsible for studies of the ethics of energy, of the teaching of ethics, and of the ethics of nanotechnology.

COMEST is managed within the Social and Human Sciences Program of UNESCO, which includes a number of ethics activities including those of the International Bioethics Committee and the Intergovernmental Bioethics Committee.

The Executive Board of UNESCO will in September consider proposals to authorize COMEST to undertake the preparation of a draft declaration on Climate Change and to expand COMEST and its budget in order to undertake the climate change work in in the context of its other major commitments, to advise UNESCO on programs in science ethics, the ethics of nanotechnologies and environmental ethics teaching.

There would seem to be important ethical questions with respect to the generation and utilization of scientific knowledge with respect to climate change and with respect to the technological basis of greenhouse gas emissions, to technologies that might be useful in reducing antropogenic climate change, and with respect to technologies that might be useful in ameliorating the impacts of climate change that does occur.

One wonders wether the proposed declaration is merely poorly named, or whether COMEST is really planning to look at the ethics of a global climatic phenomenon. If the latter, would that not be better left to other international bodies focusing on the environment and climate change such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations Environmental Program, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature or the World Meteorological Organization.

The documents before the Executive Board suggest expanding membership of COMEST appointed by the Director General of UNESCO from 18 to 36 members, while removing from COMEST 10 ex oficio members from international organizations. It is not clear that the Director General is likely to select individuals who would bring more to COMEST than the current ex officio members. Nor is it clear that a 36 member COMEST would be more capable than a 28 member COMEST.

The documents also suggest more frequent meetings. Would it not be possible to save the expense by increasing use of the Internet for communication among members of the Commission, including use of video conferencing if needed?

One may also question whether the added budget requested for COMEST and the Climate Change Declaration might not be better spent in other ways. For example, UNESCO's flagship social sciences program, the Management of Social Transitions Program, might utilize a budget increase to study how social science could be brought to bear by policy makers to reduce antropogenic climate change or to improve social response for the amelioration of the impacts of climate change. Alternatively, the funds might be used within the Natural Science Programs to further international scientific cooperation in the study of the factors causing and the rate of climate change.

John Daly
(The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.)

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