Stewarding Natural Resources for Intergenerational Well-Being Through the Endangered Species Act

Friday, May 14, 2021

Climate change and environmental degradation not only pose visible threats to the well-being of millions today, but also present hazards to future generations—challenging the principle of intergenerational equity. Intergenerational equity, a concept that calls for fairness and justice between generations, requires that past, present, and future generations share the Earth’s resources in a fair and equitable manner. Related to this is the concept of intergenerational well-being, which calls on present generations to live and govern in a way that will allow future generations to live healthy and complete lives.

Principles of intergenerational equity and well-being are particularly important when addressing climate change, presenting the guiding goal of preserving a habitable planet for future generations. Climate change and ongoing environmental degradation are severely impacting biodiversity, contributing to changing habitats, mass extinctions of vulnerable species, and extensive ecosystem disruption. This biodiversity loss is infringing upon natural resources, ecosystem services, and the general environmental health and well-being of future generations.

Head of bald eagleBiodiversity and ecosystem loss related to climate change will disproportionately impact younger populations and present a significant burden to future generations, who will be unable to benefit from rapidly disappearing species and ecosystems. Many individual plant and animal species provide varied benefits, from medicinal value to food uses to ecosystem services, which will be lost to future generations if these species go extinct. In addition to challenges presented by the loss of individual species, extinction events will destabilize whole ecosystems and contribute to ecosystem loss and environmental degradation, which will impact future generations’ access to clean water, healthy soil, and other natural resources. In order to achieve intergenerational equity and promote intergenerational well-being, actions must be taken by present generations to mitigate or reverse the impacts of current biodiversity and ecosystem loss.

To address the impacts of biodiversity loss on future generations, some scientists and policymakers are advocating for improvements to the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the 1973 act that created the federal lists of endangered and threatened species and set up a national program for the conservation of protected species and their habitats. Strengthening the ESA and expanding its protective capabilities may present an avenue for preserving species and ecosystems for the benefit of future generations.

The ESA is one of the oldest and strongest environmental laws in the United States. Proponents of the ESA claim that it is one of the most effective pieces of legislation with a 99 percent success rate, as 99 percent of species protected under the ESA have avoided extinction. Critics denounce it as a failure because only 1-2 percent of protected species have fully recovered and been delisted. Neither of these figures tells the full story, as most species protected under the ESA have not yet reached their expected recovery date. For species with federal recovery plans, a 2012 Center for Biological Diversity study found that 90 percent of species were recovering at the projected rate.

However, the success of ESA protections can vary based on governmental support and enforcement. Species with critical habitat protections were found more likely to show improving population trends than those without—as is the case for species with detailed federal recovery plans. Access to substantial government funding of recovery programs also improves the probability of successful recovery. Such findings show that ESA enforcement must include significant supportive measures, in addition to listing, in order to successfully aid in the recovery of endangered and threatened species.

While the ESA successfully provides a framework for national conservation efforts, enforcement is limited in some aspects. ESA enforcement is typically more of a retroactive remedy than a preventative measure, as species must be considered threatened or endangered to be subject to ESA protections. Federal agencies’ decisions regarding listing and protections remain unclear in many cases. Moreover, the ESA’s approach of single species protection, as opposed to a general ecosystem approach, stretches limited government resources as more species are listed.

Considering these limitations, some call for greater transparency and wider enforcement of the ESA to increase its effectiveness. Furthermore, mechanisms currently outside of the ESA may help protect critical habitats, such as incorporating valuation for ecosystem services, incentivizing reduced-impact logging techniques, and more. By improving enforcement and incorporating new concerns, the ESA may prove to be a valuable tool in preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services for future generations.

The ESA presents significant possibilities in working toward environmental intergenerational equity. To learn more about the potential role of the ESA in preserving natural resources, biodiversity, and ecological services for future generations, join ELI and our expert panelists for our May 25th webinar, Stewarding Natural Resources for Intergenerational Well-Being Through the ESA. This program will explore the challenges biodiversity loss and climate change present to intergenerational well-being in addition to illuminating the opportunities presented by the ESA.