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Minimizing disruptions, maximizing creativity in the time of climate change

Leslie Ridgeway • September 2, 2021
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USC Gould professor part of research group publishing paper on adaptive governance and equity
A USC Gould School of Law professor is one of an international group of lawyers and scientists publishing a paper Aug. 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that explores the continuing roles for government in overseeing the adaptive governance that emerges to manage climate change and its resulting inequities and challenges as well as the increasing need for interdisciplinary research about how social-ecological-technological systems are changing over the long term.
Professor Robin Craig is the co-author of a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Robin Craig is a co-author of “Governing Complexity: Integrating science, governance, and law to manage accelerating change in the globalized commons,” which also proposes long-term interdisciplinary studies to determine how governance of water and other environmental rights should be strengthened or lightened in the time of climate change.

“Governance of how humans interact with ecosystems needs to change to deal with the fact that we are in a climate change era, the Anthropocene,” says Craig, a frequently cited expert on coastal and water law. “It’s a hard project to figure out where you need to double down on the law or loosen up –  and how to do that without generating social chaos in the process.”
As examples, Craig points to regulations governing toxic pollutants in the environment, which for the good of everyone’s health should not be lessened and may even need to be strengthened. On the other hand, Western water rights, long considered locked in, may deserve a more creative approach, such as what is happening now with governance of the Klamath River and Columbia River water basins, where officials are considering how to preserve salmon for tribes, commercial fisheries and recreational purposes.
“We are trying to think through the different ways these transitions could be chaotic, and identify the pathways through,” Craig says. “There will always be disruptions, but how do you keep them minimal and try to creatively use them to increase equity at the same time?”
Researchers study how resilience theory clarifies emergence of adaptive governance
The research group, which includes scholars from University of California, Berkeley, University of Idaho College of Law, George Washington University, and universities in Finland and Sweden, builds upon the products of a five-year interdisciplinary research project funded through the Social-Ecological Synthesis Center (SESYNC) to study adaptive governance, resilience theory, and environmental change, focusing on six water basins across the United States. The question that this expanding group of researchers has been puzzling over: how does resilience theory illuminate the emergence of adaptive governance, a spontaneous, learning-based governance system aimed at managing changing social-ecological systems, and how do the two interact?
The initial grant group of researchers published a series of articles in law reviews and the journal Ecology and Society, as well as a book, as part of its ongoing research and reporting, which has broadened beyond water basins. Several group members were graduate students who later became professors, Craig says, including one who is currently working with Craig on an undergraduate textbook on water law and policy.
The PNAS paper is also intended to encourage scientists to invite lawyers into the research process at the start rather than dismissing them as obstacles. PNAS was a top choice for that reason, Craig says, noting that one of her scientist colleagues changed his view of lawyers during the process of researching the PNAS paper. “He and the other scientists came to see that if they tell us what they’re trying to accomplish, we can probably come up with a legal pathway to get there.”
With divided politics and widespread misinformation influencing governance for good or bad, it’s more important than ever for disciplines to come together and understand what each brings to solving the problem of climate change and managing it for the benefit of socio-economic systems, Craig says. And that means government still has a critical part to play.
“The paper makes the point that government as government has a role in overseeing the process and making sure that creative new approaches don’t end up subverting good governance and equity overall,” she says. “We need new interdisciplinary institutions and scientists of all kinds and lawyers working together, but we also need to continue to make sure there’s some sort of oversight.”

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