The responsibility of legal scholars in a time of climate change, by C Armeni

When we think about responsibility for climate change, we tend to picture the ‘bad guys’, the fossil fuel industries, or the largest GHG-emitting states. Fewer think of universities. But of course, universities are large emitters too. Their buildings are often old and have poor energy efficiency. Academics travel – often long-haul – to undertake their research or field work and disseminate their findings. Our individual carbon footprint can therefore be significant (especially if you are an astronomer!). But universities also take climate actions for instance by switching to low-carbon energy sources or developing university-wide climate plans. Some go as far as divesting from fossil fuels and generating renewable energy on campus (here).

Yet the expectation of individual academics remains a less debated question. The role and responsibility of academics in the climate crisis are complex and sometimes end up being comfortably concealed by institutional efforts, silo thinking (which boils down to ‘this is not my area’) and the protection of academic freedom.

I argue that precisely because of the institutional, cross-disciplinary, or independent position of academia, legal scholars have three responsibilities here: a responsibility to rethink their expertise in terms of climate law expertise; a responsibility to teach law with climate change in mind; and a responsibility to take interdisciplinarity seriously. 

Rethink our legal expertise as climate law expertise

The first responsibility is to rethink our legal expertise as climate law expertise. This means using our ‘knowledge of legal norms, rules and discourses’ (p.1) in a specific area of law to answer the – theoretical and practical – legal questions prompted by climate change. Some scholars will feel that climate change is an anomalous stretch in their legal expertise: what would a private lawyer with expertise in family law have to say about climate change? Why would an administrative law scholar be interested in climate mitigation?

But as legal scholars, we are increasingly called to offer our wide-ranged expertise to policy-makers and the broader society engaged in decisions about climate change (even if, as Lee and Abbot remind us, ‘legal expertise alone provides a problematic basis for decision-making’ (p. 79)). Climate change is not just about heat waves and rising sea levels, however catastrophic. It is also – and crucially – about rights and obligations, justice and equality and the role of public institutions, the State, and its agencies in tackling the causes and consequences of this crisis. To use my examples above, family law scholars might traditionally not be obvious candidates as climate experts (here). However, questions related to climate-induced migration and the impact on family reunification, or the trade-offs between the right to one child and the demographic control through a small family approach justified by climate considerations are interesting questions for family law scholars. Climate change is also an important – or the single most important according to Kati Kovacs – administrative law issue. The extent of the State and its agencies’ responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions, the contour of their duty to act on climate change and the legal consequences of their inaction are some of the most visible questions for administrative law scholars.

Some of us might be more comfortable with the type of legal questions that climate mitigation and adaptation trigger. I am thinking here about environmental scholars, given the relation between climate law and environmental law. But, as my examples show, climate law engages with other areas of law, such as energy, constitutional, public, and administrative law, market regulation and international trade law, migration planning and insurance law, just to name a few. And the questions we are asked as legal scholars are in constant transformation. Recent work on the just transition emphasises the nexus between environmental and social rights, as issues of justice and equality come to the forefront of our climate response. These questions inevitably push some of us out of our comfort zone to explore how our own expertise can embrace the ‘legally disruptive nature of climate change’.

Let me be clear. Suggesting that we re-think our expertise as climate law expertise does not imply being in favour of “scholactivism”. The recent debate on the contested relationship between scholarship and activism in constitutional law is of course relevant. And some urge for rethinking the role of academics as activists in the climate and ecological crisis too (here). But my point here is not about legal scholars as potential activists.

I simply argue that the centrality of climate change calls upon scholars in all areas of law to reconceptualise the boundaries of their legal expertise in this area. This means rethinking the contours and climate relevance of their branch of law, and the importance of their research questions from a climate perspective. For instance, a climate law perspective for administrative law scholars interested in administrative decentralisation might imply exploring climate action at the subnational government and the potential and challenges for intergovernmental collaboration. Other ways of rethinking our expertise are possible, depending on interests and inclination.

As a minimum, this exercise means reflecting on what our independent and methodologically rigorous research and expertise can bring to the key legal questions surrounding our response to climate change. Sometimes these questions are difficult to identify if climate change has not been on our radar. But increasingly, the climate transition populates the academic debate in previously unrelated areas. Take labour law and social rights as an illustration. The implementation of climate mitigation policies means that some workers in the most carbon-intensive industries will lose their jobs and need retraining, posing important questions of social justice and labour rights in relation to climate policies. This is an area where labour law expertise becomes climate law expertise and where labour law scholars can identify the most pressing questions more precisely than those with a legal specialisation in climate matters.

All education is climate education

In 1994, environmental scholar David Orr argued that ‘all education is environmental education’.[i] Today, it will not be too farfetched to suggest that in the current crisis, all education is climate education, an education that is shaped and defined by our climate reality. And this also applies to legal education.

As Michael Mehling and colleagues argue, ‘teaching the law of climate change […], requires both a generalist perspective to capture its sprawling horizontal perspective and manifold linkages, as well as a specialist perspective to reflect its vertical layers and complex technicalities’ (p 419).

This means two things. First, law schools cannot avoid teaching climate change as a legally relevant subject. Second, many areas of law cannot be taught without at least some reference to climate change. There are of course several challenges associated with teaching climate law. For specialised courses, there is a tendency to focus on technical bits of law and regulation and less on general concepts and theoretical underpinning. This might picture climate law as an overly technical and exclusionary subject “only for the initiated”, rather than opening up to multiple voices and perspectives. For traditional legal subjects, the question is how to accommodate climate change into already dense courses in law. The main objection is that there are many other important subjects to put in the curriculum and that academic freedom is to be protected. The other objection goes back to the ‘this is not my area’ argument, discussed above, showing how teaching and research are – rightly – viewed as the two sides of the same coin.

More widely, reflecting on our teaching with climate change in mind constitutes a challenge to our way of seeing legal education through the public/private law divide and international/national/subnational divide. But it is also an opportunity to reshape these categories, as suggested by Nicole Graham, to equip our students to become better lawyers, judges, policy-makers and citizens in the climate transition. Concretely it means providing the theoretical and practical tools for them to become practising lawyers who understand their climate responsibilities in their engagements with clients  (on this see Steven Vaughan here); to sit as ‘climate-conscious judges’ and recognise the role of the courts in addressing climate change, or to understand the complexity of multilevel decision-making required to address climate change.

Take interdisciplinarity seriously

Finally, as academics confronted with climate change, we have a responsibility to take interdisciplinarity seriously. Climate change is an interdisciplinary subject par excellence. As Mehling and colleagues point out, taking interdisciplinarity seriously requires ‘learning, contextualising and applying concepts and tools of more than one field, and gaining at least the basic familiarity with the theoretical premises, historical evolution and seminal debates in other disciplines’ (p 438). There is a large literature on interdisciplinary legal scholarship, within and beyond environmental law. But there is less interest in how to teach interdisciplinary thinking and skills and use interdisciplinarity as a teaching method.

I have conducted interdisciplinary research for many years and hold an interfaculty chair in environmental law at Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB). More recently, I started an innovative teaching project: a horizontal course on the challenges of sustainability open to all students from twelve faculties at ULB. It aims to introduce students to systemic and interdisciplinary thinking applied to sustainability. We have tandems of two scholars from different departments teaching the same session.

It is a fascinating gamble. Of course, there are pedagogic challenges and organisational barriers in how we design the content and make it accessible – and yet rigorous – from a methodological and pedagogic perspective. Issues include how we assess it, how to construct acoherent narrative and what skills to focus on.

There could be many ways to address interdisciplinarity in teaching, but my colleagues and I believe that this course opened to all students and with an interdisciplinary teaching body is a promising direction to taking interdisciplinarity seriously while ensuring a pedagogically sound learning experience.

To conclude, climate change requires legal re-imagination as a ‘condition for recomposing the mismatch between the ordering tendency of law and the disruptive nature of climate change’ (p. 486). I am convinced that as legal scholars rethinking climate expertise, teaching law with climate change in mind and taking interdisciplinarity seriously are necessary elements for building our – and our students’ – re-imaginative capacity in a time of climate crisis.

Posted by Professor Chiara Armeni

Chiara Armeni is Professor of Environmental Law, IEE/CDPS, Université libre de Bruxelles.

This blog post is an extended version of my contribution at the workshop ‘Les politiques publiques de lutte contre le changement climatique: Acteurs et instruments’ – 7th meeting of the ‘Future of Administrative Law’ network (10 June 2022). This piece has been completed in the Summer 2022.

[i] D. Orr, Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect, (1994) Washington DC: Island Press, 11.

Suggested citation: C Armeni, “The responsibility of legal scholars in a time of climate change”,, accessible at