Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Climate Solutions Lab

Climate Change Law & Policy

Northwestern University

Public Policy / Admin,Law


William Burns

Undergraduate lecture

Climate change is the keystone environmental issue of this generation, and most likely for many generations to come. It now appears inevitable that temperatures will increase this century by more than 2ºC, and perhaps by substantially more than 3ºC, with the inertia of the system ensuring that temperatures will continue to increase for centuries thereafter even under scenarios of total decarbonization. Climate change is already posing serious risks for both human institutions and natural ecosystems. These risks will seriously escalate throughout this century, especially if the world community fails to substantially increase its commitment to addressing greenhouse emissions, inadequately allocates resources to adaptation, or, perhaps, fails to commit itself to technological approaches to remove carbon from the atmosphere.


This course examines the potential role of the law in confronting climate change from an institutional and policy perspective, examining the role of treaties, national legislation (in the United States), sub-national responses and judicial and quasi-judicial fora. Among the topics that will be addressed include the science associated with climate change, the role of key international climate treaty regimes, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, national and state and local responses to climate change in the United States, the role of litigation in confronting major emitters, and the potential role of climate geoengineering approaches. It will also seek to help students develop critical skills of analysis of treaty provisions, legislative language, and court decisions, public speaking and cogent writing.