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.”