Natural Resources, School of


Document Type


Date of this Version



PNAS, October 1, 2019, vol. 116, no. 40, pp 19899–19904.

doi 10.1073/pnas.1906247116


U.S. govt work.


Over the past several decades, environmental governance has made substantial progress in addressing environmental change, but emerging environmental problems require new innovations in law, policy, and governance. While expansive legal reform is unlikely to occur soon, there is untapped potential in existing laws to address environmental change, both by leveraging adaptive and transformative capacities within the law itself to enhance socialecological resilience and by using those laws to allow socialecological systems to adapt and transform. Legal and policy research to date has largely overlooked this potential, even though it offers a more expedient approach to addressing environmental change than waiting for full-scale environmental law reform. We highlight examples from the United States and the European Union of untapped capacity in existing laws for fostering resilience in social-ecological systems. We show that governments and other governance agents can make substantial advances in addressing environmental change in the short term—without major legal reform—by exploiting those untapped capacities, and we offer principles and strategies to guide such initiatives.