The Biodiversity Paradigm Shift: Adapting the Endangered Species Act to Climate Change
50 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2015 Last revised: 17 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 17, 2016
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was designed to protect species that had been rendered more vulnerable to extinction as a result of human activity. As such, its implementation has traditionally focused on keeping human beings away from such species and giving the species (and their ecosystems) space to heal on their own. Climate change is altering the landscape everywhere on the globe, rendering the hands-off approach no longer sufficient. Active interventions will become more necessary as we get further into the changing climate. Taking decisive action in response to climate change will also require a fundamental shift in our approach to nature, in which we leave behind the static preservationist view and accept that change is happening so that we can manage that change. Making the move from passive management (the hands-off approach, focused on prohibiting certain actions) to proactive management techniques will require some triage, which is impossible without this psychological shift. Climate change is resulting in widespread disturbances to ecological functioning, regardless of whether human beings have set foot in a given area, and we can no longer apply a static approach to a dynamic world. Rather than cling to a goal of reducing human interaction with nature, we must focus on the goal of increasing species resilience to change – these goals have coincided in the past, but this is lessening with each warming year.
This Article will review the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and the sort of management approaches that will become more appropriate in the Anthropocene, an era characterized by rapid non-linear change and multi-scale tipping points. Dealing with climate change requires effort both to mitigate (reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gasses) and adapt, so the Article will discuss the relationship between the ESA and both mitigation (which is not an ideal area for ESA application) and adaptation (where the most work is needed). While there are several provisions in the ESA that will prove useful to supporting the new strategies for species and ecosystem management, utilizing them properly will require a shift in implementation priorities and greater acceptance of the demise of what once was. Moreover, because the existing potential for applying ESA measures to support more active management techniques is both inadequate and voluntary, it will be worthwhile to build these new modalities into the statute itself in order to maximize the potential for species climate adaptation. I propose several changes to the ESA – amendments designed to bring what is rapidly becoming a rusty old statute into the new world we must manage today.
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