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Legal and institutional foundations of adaptive environmental governance

Daniel A. DeCaro, Department of Urban and Public Affairs, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA
Brian C. Chaffin, College of Forestry & Conservation, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, USA
Edella Schlager, Professor, School of Government and Public Policy, The University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Ahjond S. Garmestani, Environmental Protection Agency, Cincinnati, OH, USA
J.B. Ruhl, Vanderbilt University Law School, Nashville, TN, USA


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Legal and institutional structures fundamentally shape opportunities for adaptive governance of environmental resources at multiple ecological and societal scales. Properties of adaptive governance are widely studied. However, these studies have not resulted in consolidated frameworks for legal and institutional design, limiting our ability to promote adaptation and social-ecological resilience. We develop an overarching framework that describes the current and potential role of law in enabling adaptation. We apply this framework to different social-ecological settings, centers of activity, and scales, illustrating the multidimensional and polycentric nature of water governance. Adaptation typically emerges organically among multiple centers of agency and authority in society as a relatively self-organized or autonomous process marked by innovation, social learning, and political deliberation. This self-directed and emergent process is difficult to create in an exogenous, top-down fashion. However, traditional centers of authority may establish enabling conditions for adaptation using a suite of legal, economic, and democratic tools to legitimize and facilitate self-organization, coordination, and collaboration across scales. The principles outlined here provide preliminary legal and institutional foundations for adaptive environmental governance, which may inform institutional design and guide future scholarship.

Key words

adaptive governance; climate change; design principles; environmental law; social-ecological resilience; state-reinforced self-governance; water governance

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