Confronting the Cost of Collective Action

Some nations may not be willing to pay the price needed to fight climate change. But the price of inaction will be much, much higher.

 |  Transcript [PDF]

International lawyer Jutta Brunnée is keenly aware of the legal and political obstacles to tackling international problems like climate change. It’s one of the most pressing global issues, and while it will take sweeping changes around the world, it can be tricky to find an equitable solution.

“One of the biggest challenges for the area of international environmental law is precisely that you have these collective action problems where everybody is suffering to different degrees from the same issue,” says Brunnée, professor of law at the University of Toronto.

“The issue can only be solved through collaboration, but the priorities and the capacities that countries have to deal with these issues are vastly different.”

Even once everyone is at the table and in agreement that this is a problem we want to work together to solve, there’s a whole framework that needs to be in place to make it a success.

“It’s often a very long process to create the frame in which this interaction and this conversation takes place,” adds Brunnée. “The reason why that can be like squaring the circle is that states are sovereign, and so unless they agree to join an agreement on climate change, for example, they will not be bound by it.”

That’s why the Paris Agreement was so celebrated when it was adopted in 2015. Suddenly international lawyers were in the media spotlight, helping the world understand how remarkable it was that close to 200 states had agreed on a long-term plan for tackling climate change together.

The goal of the Paris Agreement was to generate collective momentum towards a shared purpose, but going forward, every party involved still needs to take meaningful action to enact change. And that is particularly important for the countries with the capacity to make the biggest impact, says Brunnée. If a major actor doesn’t fulfill the goals they agreed to, many others may follow suit. Broken promises can also make it harder for other countries to step up and keep the momentum going.

“The problem, the challenge that we face is that dealing with the problem of climate change isn’t just doing nothing,” says Brunnée. “It actually requires all of us to do something, and it’s hard for governments to convince people that it may actually cost something.”

‹ Previous post
Next post ›

Jutta Brunnée is Professor of Law and Metcalf Chair in Environmental Law, University of Toronto, where she previously served as Associate Dean of Law, Graduate (2010-2014) and Interim Dean (2014).

She has published extensively in the areas of public international law, international environmental law and international legal theory. She is co-author of International Climate Change Law (OUP 2017), which was awarded the American Society of International Law’s 2018 Certificate of Merit “in a specialized area of international law” and was recently translated into Korean, and of Legitimacy and Legality in International Law: An Interactional Account (CUP 2010), which was awarded the American Society of International Law’s 2011 Certificate of Merit “for preeminent contribution to creative scholarship.”

In 1998-99, Brunnée was the “Scholar-in-Residence” in the Legal Bureau of the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, advising, inter alia, on matters under the Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions. She served on the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law (2006-2016) and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2013, and Associate of the Institut de Droit International in 2017. In January 2019, Brunnée delivered a course on “Procedure and Substance in International Environmental Law” at the Hague Academy of International Law.

Research2Reality is a groundbreaking initiative that shines a spotlight on world-class scientists engaged in innovative and leading edge research in Canada. Our video series is continually updated to celebrate the success of researchers who are establishing the new frontiers of science and to share the impact of their discoveries with the public.