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Celebrating a Pathfinder in International Environmental Law—Festchrift for Professor Edith Brown Weiss

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Kirk Talbott

Visiting Scholar

On the bright, late autumn afternoon of November 19, over 100 people gathered at Georgetown University Law Center for a half-day forum on “Modernizing International Environmental Law” in celebration of Prof. Edith Brown Weiss. Co-sponsored by the Environmental Law Institute, the Georgetown Environmental Law Review, and the Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Program, the symposium was more than a tribute to a famous scholar and beloved teacher. The presentations, panels, video calls, lively discussions, and reception portrayed a pathfinder with a strong moral compass and deep conviction—such that all of us felt inspired and motivated to continue in her footsteps.

EBW, or Edie as affectionately known to many, towers in the traditionally male-dominated fields of international and environmental law. Over 50 years, and still going, of outstanding scholarship and teaching from Princeton to Georgetown, her work in The Hague and beyond has vaulted her to a living-legend status as a pioneer in her field. Professor Weiss’ pathfinding work on accountability and intergenerational equity continues to inspire research, policy, and practice at the highest levels. Her ability to provide clarity and coherence comes with an unwavering commitment to good governance and the foundational principles of accountability, transparency, representation, and equity and fairness. Her career path mirrors the development of institutions and improvements in the legal landscape including the World Bank Inspection Panel and The Hague, and has improved international environmental accountability mechanisms worldwide.

Gerwitz Student Center

Students, teachers, colleagues, and friends filled the 12th floor, sun-filled conference room of the Gewirz Student Center from 12:30–5:30 p.m. for a symposium focusing on EBW’s numerous contributions in law and sustainable development. Dean James Feinerman set the tone in his opening address by sharing how Edie had invited him down from Harvard, which he never left, in no small part due to her gracious hosting and standards of intellectual excellence. He explained that the Georgetown University Environmental Law and Policy Program and its Law Review will follow the conference with a special EBW tribute edition in the spring of 2020. This “Festchrift” tradition, or book honoring a respected person, reflects the depth and breadth of admiration and friendship for Edie.

So, too, did the folks who came together for the symposium, many of them authors of papers for the upcoming Law Review. Arnold Kreilhuber, Acting Director of the UNEP Law Division, and Tony Oposa, President of the Law of Nature Foundation, gave heartfelt tributes to Edie by video from Nairobi and Manila, respectively. Peter Lallas of the Global Environment Facility joined David Hunter of American University for discussions on accountability in international institutions. The second panel including Steph Tai (University of Wisconsin Law School), Lydia Slobodian (IUCN), Melissa éBlue Sky (CIEL), and me, discussed EBW’s role in applying and extending intergenerational equity from the angles of food, conservation, and indigenous peoples. The last panel on reconceptualizing international environmental law brought together conference organizer Carl Bruch of ELI, Jutta Brunnée of University of Toronto Law, and Dan Magraw of SAIS. Each spoke to the many ways that EBW has directly impacted the exploration of new frontiers in international environmental law.

Kirk Talbott (left), Carl Bruch (center), and
Edith Brown Weiss (right).

The symposium ended with Professor Weiss receiving a beautiful lifetime recognition award from Georgetown University, the Environmental Law Institute, and the United Nations Environment Programme. A festive, flower-filled reception with plenty of food and drink followed. Edie was showered with embraces, gratitude, and fond remembrances into the evening, surrounded by family and friends. It turned out to be a marvelous occasion.Professor Weiss closed the symposium with brief but powerful remarks in a talk entitled “Reflections on Sustainable Development in a Kaleidoscopic World.” She spoke of the dangers of the “me first” mentality in a world of increasing interdependence and dangerous global consequence. She encouraged us all to reject a “me first” mindset and recommit to working together, strengthening our laws and governance to secure a sustainable common future.

EBW’s example and teachings help us navigate a multi-dimensional, “kaleidoscopic” world of accelerating climate change and diminishing options. Few can achieve even near her level of professional accomplishment, but all of us can try to “up our game” and follow our best inclinations and try to do better, be better. She gives us hope in a troubled time.

Those who missed the event can view a recording here


All blog posts are the opinion of its author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ELI the organization or its members.