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Balancing stability and flexibility in adaptive governance: an analysis of tools available in U.S. environmental law

Robin Kundis Craig, Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, Salt Lake City, UT, USA; University of Utah Global Change and Sustainability Center, Salt Lake City, UT, USA
Ahjond S. Garmestani, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Craig R. Allen, U.S. Geological Survey; Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA
Craig Anthony (Tony) Arnold, Brandeis School of Law, Department of Urban & Public Affairs, and Center for Land Use & Environmental Responsibility, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA; UCLA School of Law, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Hannah Birgé, School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, USA
Daniel A DeCaro, Social Decision Making and Sustainability Lab, Department of Urban and Public Affairs, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA
Alexander K. Fremier, School of the Environment, Washington State University, Pullman, WA, USA
Hannah Gosnell, College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, USA
Edella Schlager, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA


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Adaptive governance must work “on the ground,” that is, it must operate through structures and procedures that the people it governs perceive to be legitimate and fair, as well as incorporating processes and substantive goals that are effective in allowing social-ecological systems (SESs) to adapt to climate change and other impacts. To address the continuing and accelerating alterations that climate change is bringing to SESs, adaptive governance generally will require more flexibility than prior governance institutions have often allowed. However, to function as good governance, adaptive governance must pay real attention to the problem of how to balance this increased need for flexibility with continuing governance stability so that it can foster adaptation to change without being perceived or experienced as perpetually destabilizing, disruptive, and unfair. Flexibility and stability serve different purposes in governance, and a variety of tools exist to strike different balances between them while still preserving the governance institution’s legitimacy among the people governed. After reviewing those purposes and the implications of climate change for environmental governance, we examine psychological insights into the structuring of adaptive governance and the variety of legal tools available to incorporate those insights into adaptive governance regimes. Because the substantive goals of governance systems will differ among specific systems, we do not purport to comment on what the normative or substantive goals of law should be. Instead, we conclude that attention to process and procedure (including participation), as well as increased use of substantive standards (instead of rules), may allow an increased level of substantive flexibility to operate with legitimacy and fairness, providing the requisite levels of psychological, social, and economic stability needed for communities to adapt successfully to the Anthropocene.

Key words

adaptive governance; balance; due process; equity; fairness; legitimacy; nonequilibrium; procedure; resilience; rule; standard

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087