Online course offers dispute resolution strategies to small states dealing with effects climate change

Climate change is affecting areas all over the world in different ways but it's small states that are particularly being affected by this environmental crisis. Professor Petra Butler's EdEx course tackles this issue among dispute resolution its relation to climate change.

Professor Petra Butler
Professor Petra Butler

With climate change making an impact around the globe, it’s the small nations—particularly island ones—that are disproportionately bearing the brunt. So what legal tools are these small states able to draw on to help them take large countries to task?

A new EdX MOOC (massive online open course), conceived by a law academic at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, aims to answer that question by teaching students, government officials, NGOs, lawyers, and interested parties around the world the cornerstones of international dispute resolution and how it relates to climate change.

The Small States & International Disputes Resolution course was devised by Professor Petra Butler, who specialises in human rights and international commercial law with an emphasis on dispute resolution. She is also the Director of the Institute of Small and Micro States (ISMS), an organisation that provides independent advice on issues affecting small nations. The course is delivered by Te Herenga Waka in conjunction with ISMS and Wellington UniVentures. The course was generously funded by think tank Konrad-Adenauer-Siftung (Australia & the Pacific).

“Small and micro states—which, by definition, have populations of around 2 million—are more adversely affected by climate change, especially the Pacific Islands in regard to sea level rise and the increasing severity and frequency of storms,” explains Professor Butler. “In addition, they’re often developing countries so their resilience when a disaster does happen is not that great—they don’t have millions of dollars to rebuild and they’re very dependent on aid.”

Professor Butler says the idea for the online course stemmed from a seminar that was cancelled due to COVID-19.

“We had planned a two-day seminar in Apia, Samoa, with representatives from the Pacific Islands and around the world, where we would establish best-practice frameworks for international dispute resolution, in particular international arbitration, in light of climate change disputes,” she explains. “It was part of a wider effort to disseminate knowledge and, since we couldn’t go to Apia but we had the funding, we thought it’d have even more longevity and global reach if we turned it into an online course.”

Professor Butler says a team of world-leading experts in climate change and the issues faced by small states are contributing to the MOOC, which comprises 12 modules.

“We look at what constitutes a small state and the particular challenges they face when it comes to climate change; we examine whether there are any advantages to being a small state in the fight against climate change; and we take a look at the science of climate change,” she says.

“We also explore the concepts of negotiation, mediation, commercial and investment arbitration, and litigation in domestic courts as well as on the international plane. We look specifically at maritime boundary disputes, and the use of World Trade Organisation and human rights dispute resolution mechanisms, and conduct an inquiry on how to draft effective environmental laws.”

Professor Butler says the course contributors come from the Pacific, but also from small states in other parts of the world, such as the Caribbean.

“The course content is definitely applicable to a range of small states—Liechtenstein, for example, is sandwiched between some larger states in Europe and has pollution coming at it from left, right and centre,” she says. “Furthermore, the people who’ve engaged with the course so far are actually from everywhere around the world, too—such as Greece and Ethiopia. Because in the end this is a dispute resolution course—the broad strategies we discuss would be interesting for anyone with a stake in the issue.”

Professor Butler says one of the issues with teaching dispute resolution is getting the attention of the relevant stakeholders, as nobody likes talking about disputes.“ But the topic becomes much more relevant and interesting when you put it in the context of something that is becoming very important in the Pacific: climate change, and how to combat its impact."

“Small states have much less capacity to closely examine every single international and domestic issue in the way larger countries do, so if something isn’t immediately relevant to them it’ll go on the back burner, right down their priority list. So that’s why we linked our course with climate change—that’s something small states are unfortunately dealing with on a daily basis: it’s immediately relevant to them.”

She says a big focus in establishing the course was making the content relevant for a broad audience, and this has been successful.

“It’s not just for lawyers—our audience consists of diplomats, government officials, NGOs... anyone who’s interested in climate change and dispute resolution.”

She wants as many people as possible to learn about dispute resolution as it relates to climate change as possible, as the issue isn’t going away any time soon. You can join the course here and watch the trailer: Course Introduction: Small States and International Dispute Resolution