International Criminal Law and Climate Change

35 Pages Posted: 23 May 2019 Last revised: 30 Sep 2021

See all articles by Patrick Keenan

Patrick Keenan

University of Illinois College of Law

Date Written: June 1, 2018


Climate change represents the most complex and important challenge to the international community today. Scholars and advocates from diverse disciplines have attempted to contribute to solutions to this problem with some success. International criminal law scholars have been, with a few exceptions, largely absent from these debates. I argue that attention to the purposes of international criminal law can help to address this deficit. In this Article, I argue that international criminal law can play a meaningful role in addressing climate-harming behavior if policymakers intentionally harness the expressive power of the criminal law to stigmatize the many small behaviors that, taken together, contribute to climate change. My argument is in contrast to previous attempts to articulate a role for international criminal law because it is intentionally modest and therefore more politically plausible. I do not attempt to hold every polluter criminal responsible or to create a grand new international institution. Instead, I draw on insights from behavioral psychology and economics to show that the criminal law can, under the appropriate conditions, affect the attitudes of ordinary citizens and thereby affect their behavior. By following this approach, international criminal law can finally begin to help address climate change.

Keywords: international criminal law, international law, climate change

Suggested Citation

Keenan, Patrick James, International Criminal Law and Climate Change (June 1, 2018). Boston University International Law Journal, Forthcoming, University of Illinois College of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 19-28, Available at SSRN:

Patrick James Keenan (Contact Author)

University of Illinois College of Law ( email )

504 E. Pennsylvania Avenue
Champaign, IL 61820
United States

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