1st Ars Iuris Legal Potentials Conference

Challenges of the Anthropocene

 September 26th, 2023

 Dachgeschoss Juridicum

Light bulb with plant growing inside

The legal point of view on a broad range of climate and nature related topics made this conference unique, such as the quality of the contributions presented by young legal researchers.

- Tamara Kapeller, Chairwoman of the Supervisory Board (BAWAG Group) & Lecturer on Sustainability (University of Vienna)

Conference report by Christian Demmelbauer, Tobias Fädler and Karina Karik

On 26 September 2023, the Ars Iuris Vienna and the Vienna Law Review hosted the 1st Ars Iuris Legal Potentials Conference, which revolved around the topic “Challenges of the Anthropocene”, at the University of Vienna. This event was organised by Christian Demmelbauer, Lukas Herndl, Karina Karik, Kevin Labner, Stephanie Nitsch from the Vienna Law Review, as well as Mary Barrett and Fiona El Manchi from Ars Iuris Vienna. Following opening remarks by Professor Franz-Stefan Meissel, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Law and Ars Iuris Vienna Speaker, eight young legal researchers from various countries and sub-disciplines of law shared and discussed their ideas on this topical issue.

The first panel, moderated by Stephanie Nitsch, centred on the concept “Rights of Nature” (RoN). Tabea Bauermeister gave this panel’s opening presentation, which tackled the question “Rights of Nature – Nothing but Symbolism?”  and assessed RoN from a European legal viewpoint. In doing so, Tabea Bauermeister analysed to what extent nature could be considered a legal person in European legal systems and dealt with (potential) obstacles to RoN’s compatibility with European legal systems. Neatly tying in with Tabea Bauermeister’s presentation, Cornelia Tscheppe focused on a different perspective on RoN – namely its relevance for indigenous communities. She analysed the case of the Australian Martuwarra (Fitzroy) River in her presentation “River of Life – A Case Study”. Cornelia Tscheppe’s presentation highlighted the complex challenges that indigenous peoples are faced with in this particular context. These challenges are, inter alia, linked to the atrocious and difficult history with Western colonial settlers, the multitude and heterogeneity of indigenous tribes – and the meaning and significance of the Matuwarra River, which is hard to grasp from a Western point of view. The two presentations, as well as the fruitful discussions they evoked, showed the multifaceted nature of RoN and provided food for thought for all those attending.

Participating in the ARS IURIS Legal Potentials Conference concerning "Challenges of the Anthropocene" has been an incredibly enriching and enlightening experience. [...] Our discussions at the conference reinforced the idea that the law is crucial in mitigating and adapting to these challenges.

- Simon Ewerz, Research & Teaching Assistant (University of Vienna)

The second panel, chaired by Christian Demmelbauer, centred on the role that courts might play in adequately dealing with challenges of the Anthropocene. First, Carina Karnicar elaborated on “Climate Change and Migration: A Human Rights-Based Approach”. More precisely, she analysed the legal instruments which may currently be referred to when applying for asylum/protection status in general and assessed their suitability with regards to climate-induced migration. In this context, Carina Karnicar further discussed the “Ioane Teitiota v. New Zealand”-case, which dealt with the question of whether there is a (human) right to relocate if one is faced with the climate-induced destruction of one’s country of origin. Subsequently, Rebecca McMenamin addressed questions of climate change litigation, talking about “Human Rights Treaty Bodies and Climate Change: Material for the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion”. In her presentation, Rebecca McMenamin investigated the implications of current human rights-based climate litigation in UN human rights treaty bodies. More specifically, she focused on issues concerning jurisdiction, the right to life in the climate context and collective causation.  The respective case law, she argued, may provide substantial material for the ICJ’s upcoming advisory opinion on states’ legal obligations and responsibilities in relation to climate change. Ellen Hagedorn and Lorenz Handstanger concluded the second panel by addressing the question “Climate Change as a State of Emergency – Can Climate Activism Be Justified?”. In doing so, they presented the district court of Flensburg’s judgment from 7 November 2022, which justified trespass in the given case, based on considering climate change a state of necessity. Ellen Hagedorn and Lorenz Handstanger thoroughly engaged with the critical debate that this decision sparked; further, they examined which concepts from legal theory might be helpful in dealing with similar cases in the future. The many questions that this panel’s contributions evoked demonstrated both the ways in which international, national and local courts are already trying to deal with the multifaceted issues connected to climate change as well as some ways in which these institutions may do so (more) productively in the future.

Legal excellence, interdisciplinary thinking and enriching scientific exchange – core elements of Ars Iuris packed in an international conference. Fabulous!

- Stefan Jahn, Research & Teaching Assistant (University of Vienna)

After the lunch break, the third and final panel, moderated by Kevin Labner, was opened by Hannah Grandits, who addressed “The Role of Discretion in International Environmental Law”. Elaborating on this issue, she started out by providing a distinction between “implementing discretion” on the one hand and “interpretative discretion” on the other hand. Hannah Grandits provided further analyses on both of these categories, each of which she substantiated with reference to exemplary provisions of international environmental law. Subsequently, she assessed whether such provisions have an impact on the effectiveness of treaty obligations, specifically discussing three possible negative effects. The final presentation of this conference, held by Annemarie Hofer, was titled “Forecasting Models and Value Based Decisions – Weak Evidence, Strong Perceptions”. Annemarie Hofer elaborated on the legal configuration of environmental impact assessments and provided an overview of existing (types of) hydroelectric power plants in Austria. Further, she addressed the question which models and scenarios are communicated from experts to authorities – and raised awareness about the importance of including multi-faceted scientific assessments in each legal decision-making-process. These two presentations and the respective discussions provided valuable insights into the technical and interpretative problems that may arise in the context of environmental challenges.

In a nutshell, the 1st Ars Iuris Legal Potentials Conference marked an outstanding start of hopefully many more conferences to come.

- Tobias Fädler, Research & Teaching Assistant (University of Vienna)

In addition to these enriching presentations, the conference provided an excellent platform for discussion and exchange between young legal researchers. Many thanks to Ars Iuris Vienna, the Vienna Law Review, and – of course – the exceptional speakers. Based on their contributions, the Vienna Law Review will publish a special issue on the Challenges of the Anthropocene – so stay tuned, if this short summary sparked your interest!


Photos by Hannah Romano