(CN) – Hyperpartisanship and its attendant legislative gridlock come at a troublesome time for the global ecology as the environment faces an onslaught of crises on multiple fronts. But a study by environmental law scholars demonstrates a raft of new legislation is not needed to adapt to the pressing changes of a world beset by the ravages of a changing climate – including flooding, drought, wildfire and violent storms – rampant natural resource extraction, mass extinctions and overdevelopment.
The study, titled “Untapped Capacity for Resilience in Environmental Law” and published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes the case that environmental laws on the books in the United States already retain the capacity for agencies to adapt to these cataclysmic changes should they maintain an adaptive and creative approach to enforcement.
“For Americans, I think that the most important message is that we don’t have to wait for Congress to act to more comprehensively engage in adaptation and transformation to cope with the Anthropocene,” said Robin Craig of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney School of Law in a statement.
The Anthropocene describes a geologic epoch generally thought to have begun in the middle of the 20th century when human beings began making a significant impact on Earth’s geology, atmosphere and ecological systems.
Many scientists, environmental advocates and legal scholars maintain the legal systems of major countries like the United States have failed to keep pace with the drastic changes, but Craig and others argue the flexibility within existing laws gives cause for hope.
“While the system of federal statutes that we currently have isn’t optimal in many cases, it doesn’t severely hamstring us, either, if agencies and stakeholders are willing to be creative and try new approaches within existing agency discretion and flexibility,” Craig said.
One example cited in the paper is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, enacted in 1976.
The law allows agencies to add or remove certain species from overfished lists, making it possible for fishery managers to respond to the changing complexion of fish populations up and down America’s coasts.
Craig said agencies need to use this untapped legal capacity to respond to changes across the spectrum of environmental problems and up and down different levels of government.
Examples from the past abound.
During the 1990s, the Department of Interior during the Clinton administration used the Endangered Species Act in innovative ways to enact a raft of conservation programs, the study says.
“We can take a page from the past and put it into action for the future,” said co-author J.B. Bruhle in a statement.
Craig said the study can be used by all types of institutional actors as examples of how agencies and the individuals who run them can use their existing capacity and leverage to solve environmental problems.