Skip to main content

Topics in Legal Studies (376-0-20)


International Environmental Law


William Charles Geoffrey Burns
1808 Chicago Avenue
Office Hours: call or email
Dr. Wil Burns is a Visiting Professor at Northwestern and Professor of Research and Founding Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Carbon Removal Law & Policy at American University in Washington, DC. He serves as the Co-Chair of the International Environmental Law Section of the American Branch of the International Law Association. Previously, he served as well as President of the Association of Environmental Studies & Sciences and was the 2019 recipient of the organization’s Lifetime Achievement War for Scholarship and Service in the field. His research agenda includes: climate geoengineering, climate loss and damage, and the effectiveness of the European Union’s Emissions Trading System. He received his Ph.D. in International Law from the University of Wales-Cardiff School of Law and is the author of more than 85 publications.

Meeting Info

Swift Hall 107: Mon, Wed 2:00PM - 3:20PM

Overview of class

Global environmental problems, including the looming threat of climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and increasing pressures on ocean ecosystems due to human activities, have become pressing concerns in recent decades. In response, a sophisticated architecture of global governance has emerged, including through the establishment of hundreds of multi-lateral treaties to confront these threats. As a consequence, nation-States have begun to cooperate with each other to an unprecedented extent, although not without facing significant obstacles, and not without domestic political agendas sometimes delaying or thwarting progress at the international level. This class examines the array of legal regimes, politics, governance processes and policy tools that have emerged in the arena of global environmental law and politics. We will focus on a number of different discrete international environmental problems, as well as how international environmental law is formulated and enforced at the international level.

Assignments will include drafting of UN resolutions and simulated UN General Assembly "debates" and a mid-term examination. There will also be substantial small-group work to engage in interpretation of treaties.

Learning Objectives

--Identify the primary sources of international environmental law and their role in international environmental policymaking;
--Interpret treaty provisions, including common core components;
--Assess the merits of international environmental policy principles, including the precautionary principle and polluter-pays principle;
--Distinguish between implementation, compliance and effectiveness of international environmental instruments;
--Assess the effectiveness of a number of international environmental regimes and suggest means of strengthening them;
--Assess the role of procedural mechanisms in protecting the international environment

Teaching Method

Lectures, guided small-group exercises, student presentations

Class Materials (Required)

There is no textbook for the course. Class readings will consist of electronic readings and online materials