Climate Change: Emerging Law of Adaptation

Posted on January 2, 2013 by Ralph Child

An earlier post noted that adaptation to climate change is inevitable and is finally emerging as a priority for public policy.  Long overshadowed by campaigns to prevent or slow global warming, federal and state initiatives and efforts by many professionals have resulted in efforts to start to collect data and promote serious planning for ocean rise and other effects of climate change.

Storm Sandy has more than reinforced that trend: it has established a much wider recognition that planning, design, engineering and regulatory decisions must incorporate the expected impacts of climate change and can no longer rely on historic weather and temperature conditions.  That shift will have broad implications throughout the legal system, amounting to an emerging law of adaptation to climate change that is distinguishable from the emerging law of greenhouse gas controls. 

As often is true, the legal academy is in the vanguard – there is a surge of law review articles and also a recent compilation published by the ABA.

For example, utility regulators have broad authority to require public service companies to prudently operate and maintain their systems.  It is common for regulators to require emergency response plans, and, in some states, to impose significant penalties for overly delayed restoration of service after storm events. 

Now, regulators are likely to require utilities also take account of changes because of global warming effects, not just based on historic conditions.  Environmental groups recently petitioned NY regulators to so require. 

But how exactly can this step be done?  Modeling of the timing and extent of climate change effects can only produce broad ranges and generalities and are indefinite about effects at particular locations.  What retrofitting is needed to assure reliable service to far future ratepayers and at what expense to current ratepayers? Ratepayers, regulators and utility stockholders will not reach agreement without significant dispute.

Existing zoning for flood plains should be modified to account for climate change.  Making those changes will trigger large disputes as previously settled expectations are overturned.  Until the rules are changed, are zoning bodies tied to outdated flood control maps incorporated into their regulations, or can they consider supplemental, updated information? 

Environmental impact reviews for proposed projects typically address the effects of a project on the environment.  Now must they consider the effects of the environment on the project?  How?   It will be litigated.

Also, as noted in an earlier post, the public trust doctrine might not serve to require regulatory agencies to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  But will it successfully undergird a state’s assertion of authority to regulate activities on or affecting lands subject to the public trust in order to account for changes and threats to shorelines?  As beaches recede, will public trust lands start to incorporate currently private property?

The common law of property, too, will be affected.  A landowner can lose title to land if it slowly disappears by reliction due to changes in a water body’s natural behavior, whereas a sudden loss by avulsion allows the landowner to keep title and restore the land.  But what if the sudden loss is due to a storm event that is part of a slow rise in ocean levels?

Finally, at what point will it become clear that professionals must take account of global warming in designing structures or else experience risk of liability for unanticipated effects?

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