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Climate Change Adaptation, Law, and Sustainability

As part of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, CLEAR, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) and the American Society of International Law (ASIL) hosted a discussion around Climate Change Adaptation, Law, and Sustainability on Friday, June 15. The lively dialogue featured input and presentations from Victor B. Flatt, Dr. iur. Birgit Lode, Marilyn Averill, and Carl Bruch. Maria Banda also prepared analysis and remarks but was not at the program.

This program sought to provide an explanation of how legal frameworks can provide the scaffolding for sustainability and climate change adaptation policies. In particular, the program featured an exploration of why and how law can be such a framework, the use of it in certain contexts and how such an approach can be understood and adapted as needed to respond to changing circumstances.

The presentations and discussions focused on the following topics:

  1. Why law provides a good framework for climate change adaptation and sustainability and what possible template can be utilized
  2. Adapting biodiversity laws and institutions to a changing climate
  3. The legal context for resilience in protected areas – the example of Yellowstone National Park
  4. Climate change adaptation and soft law – lessons from the World Bank.

Much of the discussion concerned how law could interact with sustainability and climate change adaptation policy in both negative and positive ways. One use for this framework is considering laws, such as laws governing uses allowed in national parks, in a piece-by-piece manner, to specifically see how these laws may enhance or discourage sustainability and climate change adaptation.

The discussion also focused on the importance in building laws that can foster adaptation in the future by providing resilience to changed circumstances. But with additional resilience comes the question of who is best suited to making policy changes in the government context. ELI’s work on adaptation in the natural resource context has important lessons about governance, responsibility, major policy decisions, and transparency. For instance, if the United States Endangered Species Act can no longer function to protect endangered species in a climate-changed world, who or what has the right to make the decisions governing trade-offs necessary to preserve or provide for the “best” outcome? And how will that process occur?

In general, the discussants agreed that important policy decisions should be made in the body politic at the most local level (assuming that to be the most responsive to policy desires in democratic systems) that has the administrative infrastructure to handle such decisions, but which does not create negative externalities for others. Thus, policy decisions could be made at a local, sub-national, national, and international level, or some combination of these depending on the type of decision being considered.

Additional questions and comments can be directed to the organizers: CLEAR Director Victor B. Flatt, the Senior International Attorney at ELI, Carl Bruch, or American Society of International Law representative Timo Koivurova, Director of the Northern Institute for Environmental and Minority Law.

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