What Will the “Foreseeable Future” Bring for Climate-Imperiled Species?

Volume 97

By Olivia Bauer

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is the strongest source of federal protection for species that are at risk of extinction, and the ESA is becoming increasingly important as climate change threatens species and their habitats more than ever. In 2019, the Trump Administration amended the ESA to provide clarity and predictability when making decisions to list a species as threatened or endangered under the ESA. The Administration defined “foreseeable future” in a way that starkly limits how far into the future the listing agencies may look when assessing risks to species. Prior to the 2019 definition of “foreseeable future,” the federal agencies in charge of deciding to list species under the ESA faced risk uncertainty when assessing the likelihood and magnitude of threats to species and their habitats from climate change predominantly because of scientific uncertainty and difficulty predicting mitigation efforts.

This Note argues that instead of the 2019 amendments providing the intended clarity and consistency, the “foreseeable future” definition instead weakens the substantive standards used in the ESA listing process, limits federal agencies’ ability to consider climate change when making decisions on whether to provide species with ESA protections, and ultimately will push climate-imperiled species further toward the risk of extinction. To provide more effective guidance to the agencies making listing decisions under the ESA, revised rulemaking should require the agencies to explain how they deal with uncertainties and species’ risk of endangerment and to apply standards consistently.

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