Keeping up with species on the move: Designing more flexible conservation laws for a changing world

Dr Phillipa Mccormack1

1Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, 2Centre for Marine Socioecology, Hobart, Australia

The effect of 1°C of global warming is already apparent on terrestrial, freshwater and marine biodiversity all over the world. In its latest report, the IPCC has described the implications of an additional 0.5 or 1°C of warming on natural systems, including warmer extreme temperatures, more intense and frequent rainfall and a growing likelihood of ecosystem disruption, damage and transformation.

These effects pose significant challenges for species and ecosystems but also for the legal frameworks designed to conserve them. Laws that are restricted by static, physical boundaries such as national borders and protected area boundaries may not provide sufficient flexibility for conserving species redistributing across these boundaries. Similarly, it may not be possible to enforce legal provisions that require rigidly defined outcomes, such as preserving the ‘native’ composition of existing ecological communities, as species’ distributions change. However, there is a risk that reforms to improve legal flexibility may produce weaker conservation laws. In particular, improved flexibility may reduce or remove accountability mechanisms for difficult and controversial decisions.

This paper proposes a new legal ‘design principle’ that can be used to guide legislators as they amend or draft new conservation laws, policies and statutory instruments. The principle is described as ‘flexible accountability’, emphasising the need for greater flexibility without reducing accountability for conservation decisions. The paper demonstrates the value of this principle for assessing the capacity of existing laws and policies to facilitate climate adaptation; and explains the potential role for this principle in much-needed law reform.


Phillipa lectures in Law at the University of Tasmania, Australia. She researches in environmental law and governance, with a particular focus on international and domestic legal frameworks for biodiversity conservation. Her work is cross-disciplinary and she has published with lawyers, scientists and policy makers in a range of scientific and legal journals. Phillipa is particularly interested in the role for legal frameworks in facilitating adaptation as the climate changes.

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