Acclimatizing Conservation

For the Provocations series, in conjunction with UCI’s “Fire & Ice: The Shifting Narrative of Climate Change” conference.


It is not hyperbole to state that global anthropogenic climate change raises fundamental questions for the future of all biota on this planet. Climate change is making many who are familiar with its hastening harms examine how to persuade and mobilize billions of people, fragmented in countless decentralized, overlapping, and independent political systems, to care about others a world away — or even more directly, about themselves and their descendants. As others have pointed out, this involves issues of equity and justice among nations and generations. Climate change strains the capacity of democratic institutions and systems, with their emphasis on short-term concerns and concrete interests, to manage long-term, latent problems. It is far from clear that humanity, and its many flawed institutions, is up to the task.

Unquestionably, policymakers should be urgently implementing policies to prevent further climate change by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. But the reality is that no amount of abatement — even if fully enacted and implemented today — will prevent many of the effects of climate change that are already beginning to play out. Though it should not supplant essential efforts to abate greenhouse gas emissions — or attempts to ensure that all responsible for it fairly share in developing the solutions — policymakers also must establish groundwork for adapting to the inevitable myriad effects of climate change.  

Climate change adaptation will require massive mobilization of many public and private institutions. Scholars, activists, and policymakers have started to focus on when to rely on proactive and/or reactive strategies, and how to employ “co-benefit” and/or “no-regret” tools and programs. Some are beginning to think about what changes in institutional processes and structures need to occur to reduce harmful effects on specific communities. Others are exploring and initiating substantive adaptation strategies ranging from infrastructure construction to changes in insurance policies to managed retreat from vulnerable areas.

Particularly in the context of natural resources adaptation, however, climate change offers a truly fundamental lesson that scholars and policymakers are largely overlooking or ignoring.  For too long, the core purposes of conservation law and policy have been muddled, conflated, and underexplored. To avoid extinctions, some have begun implementing strategies to assist vulnerable life forms in dealing with climate change effects. At the same time, parallel planning and developing measures for thwarting ecological migrations have begun.  But strategies like “assisted migration” — the intentional movement of an organism to an area in which its species has never existed — and more familiar approaches such as invasive species management both raise deep questions about the purposes and future of natural resource law and policy, and indeed about these strategies’ potential deleterious effects on other species.

Though concerns about the scientific viability and legality of these strategies are important, the fundamental tensions highlighted by them are ethical.  When should humans seek to protect vulnerable species by moving them, or alternatively work to conserve “native” biota and thus shield pre-existing species from such “alien” species? Should managers actively restore or preserve historical ecological assemblages; leave them wild and uncontrolled; or possibly focus on cultivating healthy new ecosystems? Under what circumstances should the primary goal of conservation be keeping nature (relatively) undisturbed; sustaining or restoring nature to some historical condition; or actively managing ecological resources to promote their fitness under future climatic (and other) conditions?

Along with resource consumption objectives, nonintervention and preservation goals and standards remain prominent in natural resources law and management. Both nonintervention and preservationism have played a vital historical, political, and rhetorical role in conservation. In a more static world, these conservation objectives could be understood as actually promoting ecological health: by leaving natural areas undisturbed, perhaps one could preserve their native condition and health all at the same time.

But the goals of preserving historical conditions and shielding nature from human activity will turn out to be ecologically costly, if not unsustainable, as global climate change progresses. In an increasingly dynamic world, not intervening will directly conflict with maintaining historical conditions. And advancing either of these goals could lead to anemic ecosystems.

Climate change thus could serve as a potent catalyst for reconsidering the goals of conservation policy and the relationship between natural and human systems. The legal system has traditionally sought to resist rather than integrate and work with change. But climate change accentuates and amplifies the characteristic volatility, as well as the interconnectedness, of natural and human systems.  

In both human-dominated landscapes and ecological reserves, law and policy ought to be reframed to focus more on how to promote ecological welfare in light of future conditions. Of course, in some instances, cultural, spiritual, or even economic concerns may still point to engaging in active efforts to retain past conditions, or letting ecosystems change without active management. But climate change makes it vital to reframe conservation objectives to primarily focus on promoting ecological health as conditions change.

Such a reorientation is daunting enough, but it should only be the beginning. A shift toward promoting ecological fitness actually makes essential the formation of governance that can foster informed public deliberation about which resources and values really matter. That may be intimidating, but the alternative is scarier.


Alejandro E. Camacho is a Professor of Law and Faculty Director of the Center for Land, Environment, and Natural Resources at the University of California, Irvine School of Law.