Saturday, November 17, 2018
David Takacs is a Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law
This is the thirteenth and final essay in a series from the Environmental Law Collaborative on the theme: "Environmental Law. Disrupted."
Biodiversity is disappearing rapidly, portending grave results not just for nonhuman species (and the populations and individuals that comprise them), but for the functioning ecosystems they constitute, and the human communities that depend on diverse species and thriving ecosystems -- that is to say, all of us. It is perhaps the single greatest problem our species faces. Even though 15% of the Earth’s land has designated formal protection, about 1/3 of that land “is under intense human pressure,” and only ¼ of Earth’s land surface remains free from substantial human impacts. Such degradation harms the wellbeing of over 3 billion people, and consumes more than 10% of annual global gross product through loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Only 13.2% of oceans are “wilderness,” and only 4.9% of those areas are within protected areas.
While cultivation (agriculture, ranching, forestry) and direct exploitation remain the gravest harms to biodiversity, climate change increasingly threatens biodiversity as species are unable to adapt to a rapidly and chaotically changing world: Our current, static methods of conserving species become increasingly inadequate if we do not preserve or restore habitats species will need in a climate-addled future.
We have made strides making laws that constrain humans from wantonly destroying everything. The need for conservation is a customary norm around the world. Nearly all nations have acceded to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and nearly all nations make some attempts to preserve their genetic heritage, with laws that sustain endangered species and/or protect land important to vital ecosystems and the biodiversity they sustain.
But the cataclysm of species annihilation proceeds apace. According to the IUCN over 26,000 species are threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibian species, 24% of mammal species, and 13% of bird species face grave extinction threats.The human population is projected to grow to nine billion by 2050 and likely to eleven billion by 2100, while the average person’s buying power and consumption will grow by 150%.Our laws to conserve are not keeping pace with our drive to destroy.
To stave off a disastrous disruption in human and nonhuman survival, law needs to evolve quickly andradically. I am not challenging current legal foci on endangered species and protected lands, which, at least, concentrate easy to identify entities (I do know what a bald eagle is, but might have trouble drawing the parameters of a given ecosystem type), and has meant that some species that would otherwise be gone still live alongside us. We can certainly exponentially ramp up what we’ve been doing. Nor am I advocating one or more of the following legal disruptions as the ones we oughtto choose. But we do have to rethink, drastically, our current approaches to living alongside biodiversity if we are to have ample biodiversity along which to live, and if human civilization is to be sustained in some recognizable form.
E.O. Wilson and other prominent conservation biologists proposed setting aside “half for nature.” Protected areas do help biodiversity survive. If done smartly -- with careful planning to conserve megadiverse areas that human communities depend upon for local and global ecosystem services -- biologists estimate we could steward 85% of nonhuman species while sustaining the human communities that depend upon them.
This would also require that the law evolve from a static conception of species and landscapes -- put a fence around an area, manage species in forms and places they’ve long been -- to a more dynamic form grounded in pinpoint adaptive management. We’d need to think about maintaining evolutionary potential outside of formally protected areas so that species could migrate, and develop nimble systems for prioritizing high level protection as areas formally protected for species no longer suit their needs in a changing climate. Law would need to specify performance standards for areas and species of concern, i.e. ecological indicators or benchmarks that must be met, and if not, required pathways to change how we’re doing what we’re doing. Managers would constantly be measuring, monitoring, reporting, and verifying in accordance with the standards. This would also result in greater employment for local people as biodiversity managers, green jobs rooted in caring for the Earth.
Current efforts to conceptualize and operationalize “Nature’s Contributions to People” broaden our notion of “ecosystem services.” Including harder-to-quantify contributions of biodiversity to our well-being may result in being more inclusive in who gets to define what those contributions are and thus what should be preserved. For selected areas, law might provide management autonomy with transfer of property rights for local guardians with a track record of care and stewardship. Law would need to be nimble and place-specific for whom are the legally mandated managers, who monitors that performance standards are being met, and what are the legal consequences for derogation from those standards.
Concerted, focused, effective efforts to stave off biodiversity loss will likely be very, very expensive. To afford this, particularly in the global South, (but even in the North, where no country comes close to preserving “half Earth,” or are successfully staunching species loss) would be to take the legal principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) seriously. Wealthy countries (and individuals) have become wealthy by exploiting lands and species of the South (or by exploiting other citizens) without proper compensation. The same entities have polluted the global atmospheric commons without paying for the externalities of that pollution. Laws implementing CBDR would alleviate the poverty that requires the poor to degrade nonhuman landscapes, and to pay for land and species conservation, including employment for a cadre of conservation professionals and paraprofessionals. All of this could be abetted by negotiating a new multilateral environmental agreement to replace the weak voluntary commitments embedded in the Convention on Biological Diversity, or by amending that agreement to put some teeth into it, including requirements to implement CBDR aggressively.
Law hasbegun, increasingly, to ask those who degrade the global environment to pay for such degradation. Under the aegis of “polluter pays” principle, REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) allows greenhouse gas polluters to “offset” their pollution by investing in reforestation or avoiding deforestation, allowing trees to work their photosynthetic magic by sucking up CO2. Biodiversity offsetting takes this logic one step further, by asking developers to offset damage to targeted species or ecosystems by paying others elsewhere to conserve those species. Both practices are controversial; but to stave off mass extinctions, when done right and on a large, monitored scale, market mechanisms could inject many billions of dollars into government conservation coffers, particularly to incentivize conservation on private lands (where otherwise conservation would not occur). State of the art collaborations between regional planners, social scientists, community groups representing disparate interests, climatologists and conservation biologists could predict where species and ecosystems might likely migrate, where human communities are likely to expand, and to prioritize migration corridors that will allow natural communities to adapt to climate change: Market mechanisms can direct and prioritize conservation in these areas.
Desperate and wildly ecologically changing times require us to rethink all of our notions of what “belongs” where. Law could permit and define parameters on aggressive conservation translocation. In a paradigm change from traditional static notions of biodiversity conservation, we might assist colonization andintroduce species to where they’d historically been, exporting species from places where habitat no longer exists or soon will not exist due to changing climates or growing human demands. These can be reintroductions to where species have been and now disappeared, or reinforcement of individuals into existing populations of that species. The “rewilding” movement focuses on top carnivores whose (re)introduction revitalizes ecosystem functions and augments species diversity. Such programs could also consider introducing species that have not existed in a place, that would be “invasive,” but nonetheless might have some chance of fulfilling ecological roles and adapting to the onslaught of climate change.
And given that we are already radically altering what may exist and where, we might use genetic manipulation or “rescue” for endangered species. Taking this one step further, we could resuscitate extinct species through genetic manipulation. So, for example organizations like Revive & Restore seek “de-extinction,” the return of the woolly mammoth, passenger pigeon, and heath hen through tissue biobanking, intense genetic (re)sequencing, and cloning.
A different line of thinking suggests that radical conservation interventions -- put a fence around half the Earth’s surface, manipulate the genetic endowment of life -- are dystopic interventions that totally miss the point that poverty and inequality drive biodiversity loss, and that “put a fence around and protect it” conservation lead to human dislocations, political upheaval, and general human misery. The only sustainable way to maintain nonhuman communities (and thus human communities) is to change the paradigmatic drive towards ever greater economic growth that inevitably degrades ecological and human capital, and to transfuse wealth from overconsuming rich to disenfranchised poor, North to South.
The ultimate sustainable route to biodiversity conservation is through what I call “deep equity,” i.e., a fundamental change in what we value and how we operationalize those values in law. Deeply equitable solutions maximize and synergize individual, community, and nonhuman health and potential. Such values, as they become deeply rooted in societies, would also become deeply rooted in those societies’ laws, creating a virtuous circle. One such value change might be reflected were we to give various different biological (or nonbiological) entities fundamental rights, reflecting our expanding conception of beings to whom we owe ethical obligations, with laws implementing those obligations. Or, simply, the wealthy need to consume much, much less than current rates, reflecting the urgency of our situation.
But law evolves slowly, and we are unlikely to pursue many of these in the short term, and in the long term it may be too late to preserve large swathes of functioning ecosystems or the magnificent creatures that inhabit them, or to save our own species that ineluctably depends upon these ecosystems. And that is the ultimate disruption that environmental law has thus far been ill-equipped to prevent.