J.B. Ruhl

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Duke Environmental Law & Policy Forum

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The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has long been the workhorse of species protection in contexts for which a species-specific approach can effectively be employed to address discrete human-induced threats that have straightforward causal connections to the decline of a species, such as clearing of occupied habitat for development or damming of a river. Its resounding success there, however, has led to the misperception that it can duplicate that record anywhere and for any reason a species is at risk. Yet, is the statute adaptable to the sprawling, sometimes global, phenomena that are wearing down our environmental fabric on landscape scales through complex causal mechanisms? For example, can the ESA effectively be used to combat climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions, to combat the impacts of urbanization by mandating green buildings, or to mitigate ecological degradation by demanding that resource users take into account the values of natural capital and ecosystem services? This article suggests that it would be unwise to push the ESA in that direction, but that the ESA nonetheless has a supporting role to play in the development of policies designed to address those problems. In particular, the ESA should be focused toward consolidating its core power to arrest the conversion of intact habitat to urban land uses, and from there it should be used to leverage its habitat protection function to promote policies responding to climate change, urban impacts ecological degradation, and other ecological problems characterized by complex, large-scale, indirect causal mechanisms

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