Climate Change Meets the Law of the Horse

54 Pages Posted: 29 Feb 2012 Last revised: 28 Dec 2014

See all articles by J. B. Ruhl

J. B. Ruhl

Vanderbilt University - Law School

James E. Salzman

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management; University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law

Date Written: February 24, 2012


The climate change policy debate has only recently turned its full attention to adaptation - how to address the impacts of climate change we have already begun to experience and that will likely increase over time. Legal scholars have in turn begun to explore how the many different fields of law will and should respond. During this nascent period, one overarching question has gone unexamined: how will the legal system as a whole organize around climate change adaptation? Will a new distinct field of climate change adaptation law and policy emerge, or will legal institutions simply work away at the problem through unrelated, duly self-contained fields, as in the famous Law of the Horse? This Article is the first to examine that question comprehensively, to move beyond thinking about the law and climate change adaptation to consider the law of climate change adaptation.

Part I of the Article lays out our methodological premises and approach. Using a model we call Stationarity Assessment, Part I explores how legal fields are structured and sustained based on assumptions about the variability of natural, social, and economic conditions, and how disruptions to that regime of variability can lead to the emergence of new fields of law and policy. Case studies of environmental law and environmental justice demonstrate the model’s predictive power for the formation of new distinct legal regimes.

Part II applies the Stationarity Assessment model to the topic of climate change adaptation, using a case study of a hypothetical coastal region and the potential for climate change impacts to disrupt relevant legal doctrines and institutions. We find that most fields of law appear capable of adapting effectively to climate change. In other words, without some active intervention, we expect the law and policy of climate change adaptation to follow the path of the Law of the Horse - a collection of fields independently adapting to climate change - rather than organically coalescing into a new distinct field.

Part III explores why, notwithstanding this conclusion, it may still be desirable to seek a different trajectory. Focusing on the likelihood of systemic adaptation decisions with perverse, harmful results, we identify the potential benefits offered by intervening to shape a new and distinct field of climate change adaptation law and policy. Part IV then identifies the contours of such a field, exploring the distinct purposes of reducing vulnerability, ensuring resiliency, and safeguarding equity. These features provide the normative policy components for a law of climate change adaptation that would be more than just a Law of the Horse. This new field would not replace or supplant any existing field, however, as environmental law did with regard to nuisance law, and it would not be dominated by substantive doctrine. Rather, like the field of environmental justice, this new legal regime would serve as a holistic overlay across other fields to ensure more efficient, effective, and just climate change adaptation solutions.

Keywords: climate change adaptation, climate justice, resilience, climate vulnerability, stationary

Suggested Citation

Ruhl, J. B. and Salzman, James E., Climate Change Meets the Law of the Horse (February 24, 2012). Duke Law Journal, Vol. 62, No. 5, 2013, Vanderbilt Public Law Research Paper No. 12-8, Available at SSRN: or

J. B. Ruhl (Contact Author)

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

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

James E. Salzman

University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) - Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management ( email )

4670 Physical Sciences North
Santa Barbara, CA 93106-5131
United States

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States

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