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Will the Endangered Species Act Make It to 2050?

This week a task force of federal, state, and tribal agencies released the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, a 5-10 year plan for initiating actions to assist species adapting to climate change. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not figure prominently in the plan. Why not?

A few years ago I published an article in the Boston University Law Review, Climate Change and the Endangered Species Act, in which I outlined  a trajectory of three key forces of species endangerment flowing from climate change:

  • Ecosystem disruption: some species will find it difficult to persist within their current ranges as climate change pulls apart the species assemblies and ecosystem properties to which they have adapted over eons. Many such species are stuck where they are–migration is not an option. Salmon and pikas are examples.
  • Adaptive species migrations: some species, however, will find migration an escape from climate disruption. Bravo for them! But when they move into habitat occupied by the “stuck” species, they will add yet another stressor.
  • Human adaptation: as humans respond to climate change with sea walls, relocation of coastal cities, water diversions, agricultural adaptations, pest and disease controls, and a host of other adaptation responses, we will put yet more pressure on species at the margin. Humans in need of adaptation may feel less warm and fuzzy about species standing in the way.

The main thrusts of the article were that (1) the ESA is not designed for greenhouse gas emission regulation, but that (2) the ESA, if innovatively deployed by the Fish & Wildlife Service and NOAA, could facilitate species’ climate adaptations. I am beginning to think I was too optimistic.The legal futurist in me doesn’t give the ESA’s species-specific, land use regulation approach more than 10-15 more years before it is overrun by climate change. No way it makes it to 2050. (more…)

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