C2GTalk: An interview with Gabriela Ramos, Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO)

Why is it important to uphold ethics in the research on solar radiation modification?

18 December 2023

Why did the UNESCO advisory body COMEST examine ‘climate engineering’?

What are the key questions around solar radiation modification?

Why is more research needed on solar radiation modification?

How can UNESCO help build trust around solar radiation modification research?

What ethical frameworks can guide discussions abound solar radiation modification?

What gives you hope for more effective climate action?

This interview was recorded on 26 October 2023 and will also be available with interpretation into 中文, Español and Français.

More research is needed to explore all aspects of solar radation modification, including the technology and its impact on society, says the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) assistant director-general Gabriela Ramos in a C2GTalkIt is important to build public trust in the research by engaging a wide and inclusive cross-section of society, including people from the arts and humanities.

Gabriela Ramos is the Assistant Director-General for the Social and Human Sciences of UNESCO, where she oversees the institution’s contributions to building inclusive societies. Her mandate includes tackling economic inequalities of income and opportunity, and promoting social inclusion and gender equality. She also oversees the youth support agenda, promotion of values through sport, fight against racism and discrimination, and ethics of science, including of neurotechnology and the internet of things. She has overseen the development and adoption of the first global instrument to promote the ethics of artificial intelligence, adopted by acclamation in 2021 by UNESCO’s General Conference. She also launched the Global Forum against Racism, to catalyse the political support that member countries have given to this cause. On gender, she has advanced several initiatives, particularly to combat gender stereotypes and biases, including in new technologies. 

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Gabriela Ramos, welcome to C2GTalk. 

Thank you so much, Mark, for inviting me.  It is exciting to be here. 

Let’s start with your work at UNESCO as assistant director-general for social and human sciences, where I understand you oversee efforts to build inclusive societies.  What does that work look like in practice? 

It is pretty straightforward, Mark.  The mandate of UNESCO is to promote education, culture, and science.  In my case, the social and human sciences are those which enable us to take better decisions when they are based on evidence, so we promote research and we push governments to invest more in science but also to use science for decision making. 

The context in which we are now living with so many crises, conflicts, and major trends that are putting a lot of pressure on our societies — inequalities, climate, and digital — requires us to have very out-of-the-box thinking based on science, multidisciplinary and diverse, to ensure that the world becomes much more inclusive, and this is what we are doing through research. 

We also have a very nice mandate that is unique in the whole UN system and in the whole multilateral system, which is to promote the ethics of science and technology, so that all these developments are not only useful or good but that they bring us to where we want to go as humanity. 

What specific challenges does climate change and the work around climate science bring to this goal? 

First, I would say that with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that are telling us that we are completely lagging behind in terms of our objectives for the transition to carbon-neutral economies we have enough science, but we still have climate deniers, and that is something that is quite telling in terms of the fact that the efforts that we need to make to de-wire ourselves from fossil fuels are so huge that it is really impossible to do it if you do not bring more understanding of what it takes, because it seems we have not been good enough to look at the behavioral changes that we need to impeach in our societies and our economies to have a more sustainable path. 

The way the economy works in terms of being measured by gross domestic product (GDP) only, for example, and growth in GDP ignores completely the impact on natural depletion in terms of our natural resources, and this is something that needs to change.  This is not a great scientific endeavor; it is just to replace or go beyond GDP to include these elements. 

As you know, our work at C2G is focused on the governance of climate-altering technologies.  Recently the World Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), which is an advisory body to UNESCO, pre-launched a report on the ethics of climate engineering.  Before we talk about its findings can you say a little bit about COMEST and its work, what it does? 

It is a body that was established 30 years ago at UNESCO to do exactly what I was referring to in the first part of our conversation, to apply this ethical framework to the development of technologies.   

I think with the very fast pace of technological development which we are confronting in so many fields like nanotechnology and artificial intelligence and all of them converging in some way, it is very important that we take a pause and use ethical frameworks to put the right questions: First, do we need these technologies; second, what do they bring to our objectives as human beings in building inclusive and fair societies; and third, are these developments being carried forward in a responsible way?   

COMEST has been producing amazing, amazing insights on the questions of artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Covid-19 vaccines, and they took it over to look at climate-engineering technologies.  It is part of their duties, but it is very interesting that we, C2G, and also the Climate Overshoot Committee consider that this is something we need to look at closely.

To delve a bit deeper on that, why is it that you think COMEST decided to take on this issue of climate engineering?  What made it a topic worth looking at now? 

First, because it is imminent. The technologies are there and can be used to modify atmospheric conditions or the emissions of carbon, so it is important that we are aware.  This is one of the roles that UNESCO plays, to raise awareness of these issues; and second, because climate is such an insurmountable task that we need all hands on deck. 

They also wanted to see how much there is a possibility to rely on these technologies to achieve our climate goals.  So I think there were these two sides, to understand better the technologies to see if they really deliver on what they are promising to do and to see if they can also be reliable for the task that we have in front of us in reducing climate emergencies.

Let’s have a little talk about the findings of the report, if that’s okay.  As you alluded to, it looked at two broad approaches, carbon dioxide removal, which seeks to draw down CO2 already emitted into the atmosphere, and solar radiation modification (SRM), a set of approaches that seeks to reflect a small portion of incoming sunlight back into space to lower the temperature.  What do you see as the major takeaways from this report on both of those issues? 

First, What is very interesting is that the actors who form the committee explain what it means to have these technologies now and the fact that you can with these very sophisticated planes and atmospheric explosions, based on volcano experiences before.  There is this effect where you can create protection from the most dangerous solar rays, and this needs to be explained. 

It needs to be explained also that we have now advanced a lot in terms of carbon capture.  Carbon capture is more complex because it is very expensive, and we still have not decided what you do once you capture the carbon.  Where you store it is very complex. 

On the other than, solar radiation reduction technologies seem to be not very expensive.  I think there were some numbers in the report indicating that you need an investment of $18 billion for each degree centigrade reduction by these technologies.  It seems that they are at hand now, and therefore it is important to distinguish these two, and that is why the committee focused mostly on solar radiation. 

Then, even if it was possible, even if your work and mine confirms that they are handy, 

The question is first the precautionary principle.  There is an ethical element: Have we considered all of the unintended consequences?  Are we sure that we can modulate this intervention so that we achieve the outcomes that we want in terms of reducing the impact of solar radiation in the atmosphere, or are we going to overshoot and then produce a long-term freezing period?  These are questions from the technological point of view that need to be answered. 

Then there are some societal questions that are very important: Who is to take the decision?  As you have asked with the C2G project, if we take the decisions, who is in charge?  Who is going to be impacted?  Are all those who are going to be impacted part of these conversations?  Who is going to develop the governance of these technologies to make sure that this is not only in the hands of those who can make it but also in the hands of everybody?  What are the distributive impacts?  Do we have all the voices at the table?  Do we think about intergenerational justice?  These are questions that the committee is asking.  Is the knowledge of these technologies enough to do it? 

Then there are also political questions because we are now under very important pressure to deliver on the nationally determined contributions that are nowhere to be seen, Mark.  You know it.  In the international negotiations we now cannot even talk about fossil fuels, so we are just backtracking from the Paris Agreement.  Therefore it is important also not to see the technologies as a fantastic solution but also to see them in the context of all the other efforts and whether using these technologies will add to our efforts, or are they just going to make us relax and think, Okay, the technologies are going to save us, so why should we care about going to the mitigation efforts that we need? 

All these questions are put there, but the most important one is that we need to have inclusive debates.  We need to include because as usual these technologies are being patented by a few countries in the north with artificial intelligence as well as many other technologies, and this is a global issue that needs to include the Global South.  It needs to include civil society, and it needs to be an inclusive conversation.

That was a great summary of some of these crucial questions.  I would love to speak through a couple of them in a little more detail. 

Maybe we will start on the broad question that you alluded to, which is often known as the “moral hazard” argument, the idea that pursuing some of these approaches could reduce pressure on society to cut CO2 emissions in the first place.  Do you see that as a genuine risk?  I wonder also, could we almost see it working the other way around where by focusing solely on emission cuts could undermine other potential avenues to reduce risk?  How do you see this moral hazard argument given the reality of likely overshoot that we are in? 

I would just reframe the question a little bit because I do not think we need to convince civil society.  You have seen civil society-led actions by young people who are out front, and we are now in the week when Greta Thunberg was put into a legal case because of disobeying a police order and using means that were not appropriate, but she has summoned all the other young people to tell us that we are not doing enough.  So civil society is conscious.  The only point is that we have not changed the ecosystem in a way that will be conducive for behavioral change at the societal level. 

I am more worried, Mark, that this can be used by the climate deniers or that this can be used by the huge vested interests, the big lobbyists, that gain from the current energy consumption and energy path, and that they are happy with us not changing an inch.  This is not a new debate.  This has been going on for so many years — the ones that are technologically hyped in the sense that we should not worry and those who are in the gloom to say that it does not matter, so I feel that what you and I are doing, what the initiative C2G but also Pascal Lamy (Overshoot Comission)and what COMEST is doing is to put this discussion in the right perspective because we are not going to say ban any research on it.  No, on the contrary, continue, and if there is merit let’s just put it on the table, but let’s put it with very clear substantive debate and research to see the merits of it, but let’s do it also in the context in which we cannot stop the emission mitigation agenda that we agreed to in 2015. It is very far away. 

Therefore, the solution is a combination of all of these, in my perspective, but we need to have clarity on the uses that can be made of these possibilities to just relax on the one hand for people who are not very conscious about it or to be manipulated by these vested interests which have been so good at ensuring that we do not move away from consuming fossil fuels in the manner that we have been doing for so long. 

Looking at solar radiation modification in particular, which is a particularly contentious topic which has divided opinion in the scientific community including over further research, I just heard a passionate support essentially for research.  Perhaps you could explain a little bit more why you feel that research is important and, going a little bit further, where should that research happen, how should that research happen, and how could it be done in a way that is inclusive of societies around the world? 

I think there is a very high degree of uncertainty, and it is important that we also recognize that even though the technological developments might tell us that it is feasible to do such kinds of interventions, there are lots of uncertainties in terms of modulating the kinds of interventions that we do to make sure that we achieve the reduction in solar radiation and not take us to the other extreme.  Therefore, who can give us assurances that this is the case or not.  So even for the technological part we need to pursue more research, but we also need to have more knowledge of what is the take by our societies. 

Societies are different.  Societies pursue different courses, and societies from countries all around the world are in different stages of development and understanding, so it is very important that we produce more research to help us raise awareness on these issues because we are not at a stage that when you see the report that COMEST has done and the report that the Climate Overshoot Committee did it is still for the connoisseurs, it is still for those who have a certain level of understanding of the issues, so I feel we have the responsibility also to make it known and accessible.  It is for us to translate that knowledge into something that is accessible for the general public and also for the Global South. 

My final point is that this does not come in an empty space.  It comes in a space where there is a lot of confusion.  There are a lot of climate deniers.  There is a lot of pseudoscience that is being produced to say, “Don’t worry; everything will work out,” and therefore there is also a context where trust in science, particularly on climate research, is not so high.  We need to fix that also because we need to have this trust element that will help us advance meaningful debates around the world.

That is clearly the very challenging context against which we are all working at the moment. 

Do you have any specific ideas, recommendations, or thoughts on how we might actually go about sharing information about SRM more widely?  What might that dissemination of information look like, and how do you so in a way that creates trust? 

I feel this is an area where the mandate on science at UNESCO has led to some lessons learned because it needs to be a process that engages all the voices around the table.  We cannot become a place that brings only those who can speak our language.  We need to translate it into something that is inclusive.  We need to reach out to marginalized groups.  We need to reach out to vulnerable groups, the ones who are suffering more from climate change, even if they are not experts. 

I think one of the conclusions of the report is that UNESCO needs to again use its convening power to bring these actors around a table for a meaningful exchange, not top-down, not the ones who know and those who don’t know, but something that brings everybody around the table, and we will be organizing those discussions. 

Then there is also the question of the framework in which science is developed, and this is the usual hard nut to crack because at the end these technologies are patented technologies that belong to certain institutions and researchers in the private sector and public sector, but they belong to a patent-protected knowledge base, and therefore there needs to be some way to balance that protection of innovation with the need for the rest of the public to know. 

I will tell you that this also requires this very important ethical compass because in the artificial intelligence field where we developed these ethical recommendations on artificial intelligence it was clear that we need to tap into the different areas that can bring knowledge to this and we need to have a global conversation.

I think the ethical aspect of this is particularly fascinating.  To have a society-wide discussion around SRM, whether to adopt it or reject it, especially in conditions of uncertainty, will require people to measure that discussion against their ethical frameworks.  As you said, all societies are different.  You may see different societies applying very different types of ethical frameworks to these discussions and taking these decisions. 

What kind of approaches do you take to deal with and tackle these different ethical frameworks?  Sometimes you may be having a conversation between two people and you think you are talking about the science, but you realize you are talking about the ethics and different approaches to that.  Religion comes into it.  Different philosophies come into it.  What kind of ethical frameworks do you think might be applied to a discussion around SRM? 

It is very interesting because it is true that the ethical notions might differ depending on where you stand, and this sometimes brings you to cultural relativism, but there is something that is at the bottom line of the work we do and the definitions we have at UNESCO on the ethical framing.  

 The ethical framing here is related to the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity, the promotion of inclusive societies, the promotion of fairness, fair outcomes, and social justice, and the protection of the most vulnerable.  The ethical reflection may be different, but the outcomes in terms of protecting human agency and ensuring that decisions are taken with full knowledge of all of the participants I think are universal.  Therefore for me it is not very complicated. 

The ethical question then, defined in that way, brings us together, because in all the world you want to have dignity in your life, you want to have agency, you want to be the master of your decisions, and you actually want to have inclusive and livable communities.  

The ethical issue might also come with societal preferences.  You have countries that are more risk-averse, you have countries that are greater risk takers, and this should also be put in the ethical reflections.  I see a parallel with artificial intelligence, because there are countries like the  United States that are open to risk and have a tolerance for failure that is admirable, but then you have the European countries that are not risk takers, and therefore they will not trade off any kind of impact on human rights if it is related to any technological discussion. 

At the end, what you find is that you are not imposing your views.  What you need to have are all the views on the table, the greater risk takers and the lesser risk takers, the more innovative, the less innovative, and those who are never at the table because this research is being done by institutions in the Global North, and then you get magic happening because they get agreements on things that you would never imagine.  Again, the recommendations of the ethics of artificial intelligence and all the work we are doing on nanotechnology applies the very same framework, and brings you good solutions.  That is what we need, but solutions that are not imposed by you, me, the institution, or the Global North, but solutions that are shaped in an inclusive manner with very different views. 

The climate debate is so important that it cannot be left in the hands of the technicians.  It has to bring the anthropologues.  It has to bring the sociologues.  It has to bring the historians.  It has to bring the humanists and the arts because humans are not just consumers or producers of technologies.  We are creatures that are multidimensional and have a soul, brain, and emotions, so I think it is very important that we bring this interdisciplinary approach that is also enriching the way we touch on these issues.  These conversations are not only for the experts.

That is so interesting.  I feel like I would like have another whole conversation just talking about the role of the arts and humanities in these discussions. 

Let me tell you, Mark.  We have a coalition that we call BRIDGES because it is using the humanities to understand climate transitions.  You learn from indigenous knowledge.  You learn how some cultures think about rivers — it is fascinating — or how you use arts to change minds and to look at the planet in a different manner. 

Maybe one final question on this.  You alluded to the fact that UNESCO would be doing more work on this.  Is there anything more specific you might say at this stage about next steps and also how the work you and UNESCO do might help inform other governance discussions in other parts of the international system? 

I forgot to mention that we have a Declaration of the Ethical Principles for Climate Change, which is exactly what we have been talking about, and the work on climate engineering is a derivative of this declaration, which again puts fairness, inclusion, and human rights at the center, and I think this is what we need to do. 

The report is going to be ready by the end of November .  The committee is going to approve it then.  We will have a session on climate engineering at the Conference of the Parties 28, so we are again advancing.  We had one in Sharm el-Sheikh, and we started this conversation with the European Climate Foundation, with the Overshoot Committee, and with Janos Pasztor, so it was good.  I think we should continue with that. 

The report is also going to include very, very concrete recommendations for UNESCO.  I am not sure they are going to ask us to go for a normative instrument, but that is one of the options.  In this case it is less obvious, but we are very sure that they are going to ask us again to use this convening power and the fact that we are the most universal institution now that the United States has come back to UNESCO, and we are celebrating that, to bring people around the table in a very honest way and giving a voice to everybody so that we can have a considered discussion and a considered assessment and continue these debates that we are having now in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner, and actually in a multistakeholder fashion too because you also need the private sector, civil society, and academics.  I think it is going to be fascinating, and I think this conversation that you and I are having is just the beginning of many more.  

I look forward to more. 

I will finish on a slightly personal note.  You come across as a very positive person, but of course we are dealing with very difficult and often intractable issues with serious consequences, and it can be difficult to maintain that sense of positivity, especially as you see previous progress being rolled back and so forth.  How do you stay positive?  What philosophies or approaches do you turn to to keep that smile? 

First of all, I am glad I am optimistic, and I thank my mom and dad for having made me like this. 

You are right in the sense that you only have to look at where we are in the world to feel a little bit dépassé, as we say in French.  

The fact is that again coming from an institution that is promoting science, I believe in evidence.  Sooner or later, leaders need to take evidence, and I have seen the power of facts. 

I was 20 years at the OECD using facts to convince decision makers to take into account scientific research to advance solutions.  I am sure you will say, yes, but we now have a lot of populist governments that do not look at facts.  Yes, I know, but I have seen the magic when you put them on the table.  You remember the report that Lord Stern did on the costs of climate in the economic field, and it was pathbreaking.  It led Mark Carney to say “stranded assets,” and that very same comment from a central banker to say stranded assets just created space for the financial sector to really be careful about not investing in carbon-related instruments. 

I feel that we will be able to put this research and evidence out there so that we move forward, and that is why I appreciate so much talking to you because the more noise we make, the more we bring the science, and the more we bring the facts, the more we will be stronger in putting pressure on all those political economy issues that we need to deal with. 

I am positive.  I know there are more beautiful people in the world than those that want to harm.

On that positive note, I want to thank you very much, Gabriela Ramos, for taking part in such an interesting C2GTalk. 

Thanks to you.  It was my pleasure, and we will continue talking. 

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