By Jessica Wentz,

The IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (2019) estimated that approximately one million species are currently at risk of extinction, with climate change being a major driver of accelerating extinction risk. Global average temperatures have risen by more than 1°C above pre-industrial levels and we are on track to exceed 2°C of warming in this century. Recent research on climate change detection and attribution – which examines how anthropogenic climate change is currently affecting our planet – has shown that habitats and species are already being adversely affected by phenomena such as warming land and water temperatures, ice and permafrost melt, sea level rise, more extreme weather events, and other changes in the bioclimatic conditions of specific habitats. These phenomena are driving changes in species distribution, phenology, and population dynamics, as well as changes in the structure and function of ecosystems and the timing of ecological processes.

In a new working paper, Sabin Center fellow Jessica Wentz examines the role of climate change detection and attribution science in Endangered Species Act (ESA) decision-making. Attribution science can help decision-makers identify general trends in how climate change affects species and habitats, evaluate the extent to which specific species are already imperiled as a result of climate change, and develop better management solutions to address the risks posed by climate change. Attribution science can also improve predictions of future impacts under different warming scenarios by providing insights into how climate change is already affecting species and habitats today. This type of information can help support a variety of ESA management actions, including species listing decisions, critical habitat designations, jeopardy determinations, and the development of species recovery plans.

The paper includes a discussion of how attribution research has been used in the courtroom to compel or defend consideration of climate change impacts in agency rulemaking and planning under the ESA. One key finding is that attribution research can help to persuade courts of the credibility of future predictions of climate change, which are particularly relevant when assessing long-term threats to species. Attribution science also supports proactive measures undertaken to protect species against climate-related threats, such as the designation of critical habitat in areas that are presently unoccupied by the species but nonetheless valuable as future refugia or habitat corridors.

The paper concludes with recommendations and best practices pertaining to the use of climate attribution data in ESA management and litigation. It outlines areas where additional guidance may help agencies improve and standardize their approach to climate impact analysis, as well as regulatory amendments that could improve the consideration of climate science in ESA decision-making and enable agencies to make better management decisions in light of their scientific analysis.

The paper is a working draft of a law review article to be published in the Yale Journal on Regulation. The project was generously supported by the High Tide Foundation. Read the full paper here.

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