William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Jessica Grannis


In 2018 and 2019, several landmark developments demonstrated the failings of past efforts to address climate change and the need for new and more ambitious solutions. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) released a dire report indicating that the window is rapidly closing for countries to dramatically reduce emissions in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and predicting dramatic consequences to the environment and public health if countries fail to take action; young activists started taking to the streets to demand more ambitious action to address climate change; and, at the 25th Conference of the Parties in December 2019, the United Nations issued a report that showed that not only are greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions not falling, but that global emissions actually grew by 2 percent in 2018. These developments demonstrate the two major failings of climate efforts to date. First, past debates about climate solutions have failed to account for key “stakeholders” who stand to lose the most if countries fail to address the problem: marginalized communities, youth and future generations, and the environment. Second, the failure of some countries to reduce emissions, even with commitments made under the 2015 Paris Agreement, demonstrates that climate change presents an intractable collective action problem. Polluters are not fully bearing the costs of the pollution they are generating and, instead, are gaining economic benefits from the exploitation of the world’s atmosphere and the consequent impacts to shared resources that will be affected by a changing climate.

These failings demonstrate that dramatically different solutions are needed to address the dire threat that climate change poses to communities and ecosystems around the globe. Crafting effective climate policy will require a broad coalition of public and private stakeholders that include a diversity of voices, including those who face the greatest threats from the impacts of climate change and who have traditionally been left out of the policy debate. Effective climate action will also require that communities both reduce the carbon pollution that is causing the earth to warm (mitigation), and, at the same time, prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change that are already locked in as a result of past emissions (adaptation). Effective solutions will also need to consider the roles and contributions of both the built and natural environments. Natural environments are not only important carbon sinks that can be critical components of mitigation efforts, but they also provide vital ecological services that will be critical to the capacity of communities to adapt to climate impacts. The built environment not only contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions; it also includes the systems that communities rely on to survive and thrive in the face of climate risks. Additionally, the solutions advanced need to address other socioeconomic and environmental stressors that weaken communities and ecosystems and reduce their capacity to cope with and withstand impacts from climate change (resilience). And, while governments have started to take some actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the efforts underway are not nearly enough to address the magnitude of the challenge. The pace and scale of action needed to slow climate change and prepare for its inevitable consequences requires dramatic changes at all levels of government and the participation of both the public and private sectors.

To that end, this Article examines the potential for innovative public-private partnerships between government and land trusts as one way of advancing climate solutions in both the built and natural environments. Land trusts are non-profit organizations that hold land in trust for the benefit of the public. Land trusts can help to address many of the failings of past climate debates because, at their core, land trusts are community-oriented organizations that involve and engage a diverse array of residents and stakeholders, and were founded to steward lands for the benefit of the environment and future generations.Land trusts are already playing important roles in rural and urban communities around the country to enhance environmental sustainability and community resilience. Through legal and policy approaches, the public sector can further catalyze land trust roles to broaden the support for and efficacy of climate actions on the ground.

This Article will first lay out the climate challenge, including how climate change and the solutions needed to address climate change will affect both the built and natural environments, and the failure of governments to mount an adequate response. Next, the Article will introduce land trusts and the roles that land trusts can, and are, playing in advancing sustainability and resilience in both the natural and built environments. Finally, the Article discusses ways that governments can adopt laws and policies to facilitate more robust roles for land trusts in advancing climate solutions.