Climate Change Adaptation and the Structural Transformation of Environmental Law

Environmental Law, Vol. 40, p. 343, 2010

FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 406

69 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2009 Last revised: 19 Oct 2014

See all articles by J. B. Ruhl

J. B. Ruhl

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Date Written: November 30, 2009


The path of environmental law has come to a cliff called climate change, and there is no turning around. As climate change policy dialogue emerged in the 1990s, however, the perceived urgency of attention to mitigation strategies designed to regulate sources of greenhouse gas emissions quickly snuffed out meaningful progress on the formulation of adaptation strategies designed to respond to the effects of climate change on humans and the environment. Only recently has this “adaptation deficit” become a concern now actively included in climate change policy debate. Previously treating talk of adaptation as taboo, the climate change policy world has begrudgingly accepted it into the fold as the reality of failed efforts to achieve global mitigation policy has combined with the scientific evidence that committed warming will continue the trend of climate change well into the future regardless of mitigation policy success.

But do not expect adaptation policy to play out for environmental law the way mitigation policy has and is likely to continue. Mitigation policy has been framed as an initiative primarily within the domain of environmental law - a form of pollution control on steroids - and thus it will be environmental law that makes the first move and other policy realms that apply support or pushback. By contrast, environmental law does not “own” adaptation policy; rather, numerous policy fronts will compete simultaneously for primacy and priority as people demand protection from harms and enjoyment of benefits that play out as climate change moves relentlessly forward. This makes it all the more pressing for environmental law, early in the nation’s formulation of adaptation policy, to find its voice and establish its place in the effort to close the adaptation deficit.

Toward that purpose, this Article examines the context and policy dynamics of climate change adaptation and identifies ten trends that will have profound normative and structural impacts on how environmental law fits in: 1) Shift in emphasis from preservationism to transitionalism in natural resources conservation policy. 2) Rapid evolution of property rights and liability rules associated with natural capital adaptation resources. 3) Accelerated merger of water law, land use law, and environmental law. 4) Incorporation of a human rights dimension in climate change adaptation policy. 5) Catastrophe and crisis avoidance and management as an overarching adaptation policy priority. 6) Frequent reconfigurations of trans-policy linkages and trade-offs at all scales and across scales. 7) Shift from “front end” decision methods relying on robust predictive capacity to “back end” decision methods relying on active adaptive management. 8) Greater variety and flexibility in regulatory instruments 9) Increased reliance on multi-scalar governance networks. 10) Conciliation.

Suggested Citation

Ruhl, J. B., Climate Change Adaptation and the Structural Transformation of Environmental Law (November 30, 2009). Environmental Law, Vol. 40, p. 343, 2010, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 406, Available at SSRN:

J. B. Ruhl (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

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