International Law of the Anthropocene

I found an interesting paper recently, International Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott, Professor in Law at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. In it, she discusses the role of international environmental law in dealing with the impact humans have on the planet.

She focuses her attention on one aspect, geoengineering, defined in her paper as defined as “the intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment”. She describes geoengineering both as a part of the “climate change mitigation tool box” as well as a serious challenge to environmental protection.

She says, “The traditional distinction between humankind and nature and the characterization of the latter as something outside of, or other than, the human sphere no longer accurately reflects the relationship between humankind and the environment in the Anthropocene.”

And even if there is still some dispute over whether to call our current epoch the Anthropocene, Scott’s paper makes some intriguing arguments.

Environmental Projections Projections being what they are, this might not actually be the picture in 90 years – but that doesn’t mean we can’t act as if it might be. Source: via

In relation to using geoengineering as a tool to steer climate change, Scott says, “Geoengineering is qualitatively different from other mechanisms intended to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Geoengineering technologies and techniques are designed to lower surface temperatures or deliberately alter the carbon cycle on a global scale; all states and all peoples are likely to be affected. Image credit: andreykuzmin / 123RF Banque d'images
However, unlike emissions reductions and adaptation, which inherently require collective action in order to succeed, geoengineering technologies can potentially be deployed by a small number of states or even unilaterally by one powerful state acting in what it perceives to be the best interests of all states.”

“Without an appropriate forum to consider these options collectively, in the context of mitigation and adaptation more generally, the international community risks unleashing a twenty-first century version of the Legend of Phaethon.”

Scott proposes new measures for dealing with geoengineering within international environmental law under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

If the issues we face are global in nature (both literally and figuratively), then a global approach of this kind offers a promising framework, both for positive action and transparent regulation.


Michigan Journal of International Law articleInternational Law in the Anthropocene: Responding to the Geoengineering Challenge by Karen N. Scott