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Climate Change, Dead Zones, and Massive Problems in the Administrative State: A Guide for Whittling Away

J. B. Ruhl

Vanderbilt University - Law School

James Salzman

Duke University - School of Law

January 23, 2009

California Law Review, Vol. 98, p. 59, 2010
FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 321

Mandates that agencies solve massive problems such as sprawl and climate change roll easily out of the halls of legislatures, but as a practical matter what can any one agency do about them? Serious policy challenges such as these have dimensions far beyond the capacity of any single agency to manage effectively. Rather, as the Supreme Court recently observed in Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency, agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell swoop, but instead whittle away over time, refining their approach as circumstances change and they develop a more nuanced understanding of how best to proceed. Whether sprawl, climate change, or other daunting challenges, agencies are increasingly being told to address massive problems but without obvious tools or strategies to do so. In this Article we explore what it means for agencies to whittle away at massive problems. Administrative law scholarship has assumed that massive problems are similar to one another, focusing instead on issues of jurisdiction and instrument choice - who should whittle and which knife they should use. In Part I we argue that the nature of the problem - the stick to be whittled - deserves equal attention. Some problems, because of the presence of certain types of cumulative effects from multiple sources, are significantly more difficult for agencies to manage. In Part II, using examples from the fields of environmental and land use law, we develop a model to identify the different attributes of cumulative effects that drive massive problems and how these can distort or undermine policy responses. In Part III we explore the three different strategies currently used in administrative law to manage massive problems, showing each to be deficient. In Part IV we draw from recent scholarship on Dynamic Federalism, New Governance, and Transgovernmental Network theories to propose an effective strategy for agencies to whittle away at massive problems through loosely-linked weak ties networks of federal, state, and local agencies. Part V illustrates how this can work in practice, using a case study of water pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. We explore both how such multi-scalar, multi-agency coordination networks function and the challenges they pose for administrative law. The Court's observation is quite correct - agencies, even when working together, can only whittle away at massive problems. This article takes the next step, creating models that explain the challenges posed by different types of massive problems and proposing strategies for engaging in more effective multi-agency coordination.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 62

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Date posted: October 8, 2008 ; Last revised: April 7, 2010

Suggested Citation

Ruhl, J. B. and Salzman, James, Climate Change, Dead Zones, and Massive Problems in the Administrative State: A Guide for Whittling Away (January 23, 2009). California Law Review, Vol. 98, p. 59, 2010 ; FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 321. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1280896

Contact Information

J. B. Ruhl (Contact Author)
Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )
131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States
James E. Salzman
Duke University - School of Law ( email )
P.O. Box 90360
Durham, NC 27708
United States
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