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Envisioning Law for the Black Swans of Climate Change

Several posts ago I outlined the “stationarity assessment” model for assessing the impacts of social, economic, technological, and environmental change scenarios on law and legal systems. The idea is that fields of law develop over time based on long-settled ranges of variability in relevant contextual factors, and when forces of change stretch that variability range too far, new legal orders may be needed. An example comes from the likely impacts of climate change, which have prompted many resource planners to declare that “stationarity is dead,” meaning that conventional planning assumptions no longer operate. In the same way, some impacts of climate change will disrupt the stationarity assumptions of particular legal fields, putting pressure on law to evolve.

Another agent of change for law comes not from the stretching of existing variability regimes, but from the introduction of altogether new phenomena previously thought to be highly improbable–the black swans, as Nassim Tabad describes them in his award winning book of the same name. These are the kind of no-analog, “unknown unknowns” that land with a big footprint. In the case of disrupted variability regimes, such as fire, drought, and storm frequency, at least the phenomena we are envisioning are familiar and there is a history of managing them upon which to build new solutions. With black swan problems, by contrast, we have no prior management history–they’re completely outside the box. Here again climate change provides an example, in the form of sea level rise.

Consider how the law of littoral property rights–the law of coastal public and private property rights–has developed doctrines to account for gradual versus sudden shifts in the shoreline. (more…)

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