William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


This Article turns to ecological resilience theory to understand the behavior of SES [socioecological system] undergoing change. Informed by the emergent and surprising behavior of these complex systems, this Article argues for the option of resilience assessment under NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] for use in application to climate adaptation measures in the United States. The amendment also provides an alternative approach to pre-project judicial review to ensure legitimacy within a more flexible process.

To this end, Part I addresses why an alternative approach to environmental assessment is needed in the context of climate adaptation by providing an overview of the dynamics of complex SES understood through the lens of resilience theory. Part II addresses what type of assessment is needed in situations of high uncertainty and ongoing change by introducing resilience assessment as a means to understand change in complex SES and to identify, measure, and ultimately enhance the adaptive capacity of rising and future generations. Part III addresses how resilience assessment can be used in agency programs and decisionmaking under NEPA, including model amendments. Climate mitigation is essential, but many aspects are technology-related and lend themselves to traditional NEPA review, whether expedited or not. In contrast, climate adaptation requires management of complex SES facing change that includes sea level rise, changing wildfire regimes, greater extremes in flood and drought, changes in water supply and timing, and increasing temperature extremes. System response will be contextual, potentially nonlinear, with high levels of uncertainty. As a result, climate adaptation must focus on measures that build long-term adaptive capacity rather than short-term results. This Article addresses the why, what, and how this may be facilitated through NEPA.

This abstract has been taken from the authors' introduction.