Climate change disrupts the boundaries that demarcate human existence.

Boundaries are an essential tool in contemporary human life. They produce and entrench identity. They ground governance systems. They determine who can come, who must go, and what the terms for living among others will be.

Law codifies and fixes boundaries. It defines political and property boundaries, and even seeks to delineate the boundaries of ecological systems. These boundaries, too often, are politically and environmentally arbitrary. They divide and reconstruct communities; they fragment ecosystems.

Questions of boundaries consume legal scholars—how they are constructed, how they operate, how they evolve. For environmental lawyers, these conversations frequently advance ecologically oriented thinking and the benefits of acknowledging functional, rather than geographical boundaries of ecological systems and ecosystem services. Increasingly, they also center consideration of planetary boundaries that “define the safe operating space for humanity with respect to the Earth system.”

In a territorialized world where boundaries are the foundation of the rule of law, and indeed the body politic itself, shifting boundaries are a conundrum. They pose existential challenges to systems of law that thrive on and, too often, assume stability. Stasis is law’s comfort zone. Climate change shatters assumptions of stasis. It doesn’t just force us to rethink boundaries; it moves the boundaries right under our feet.

In a worst-case climate world, climate change will redraw our maps, rewire our minds, and revolutionize our politics. For the sake of simplicity in this short blog, we can imagine key shifts along the axis of the physical, psychological, and the political.

First, the physical. Climate change is altering our landscapes. Globally, the tropics and the Sahara are expanding.  In the United States, flood zones fluctuate, the 100th Meridian line shifts east, and plant hardiness zones push farther north.  But it’s not just climate zones and ecosystem boundaries that are changing. Glacial zone retreat in the Alps blurs the border lines between Italy and Switzerland. Equally, Arctic coastal states scramble to expand their outer continental shelf boundaries as sea ice disappears and new opportunities appear for territorial expansion.

Second, the psychological. As physical boundaries shift so too does our sense of place, stability, and identity. As our landscapes change, we are forced to rethink who we are, where we belong, and what we are capable of absorbing. The physical health effects of climate change are too many to mention. But the indirect psychological effects of both slow and sudden onset disasters—climate anxiety, ecoguilt, and the psychological effects of displacement and diaspora—are likewise daunting. In a worst-case climate world, our sense of self, security, and well-being teeters on a precipice.

Third, the political. Even as landscapes and our sense of place and identity shift, we imagine our political systems largely functioning in stand-still mode on a stand-still planet. In today’s almost, but not yet worst-case climate world, mainstream politicians continue to advance stasis-dependent frameworks—property, gray infrastructure, and resource extraction—and stasis-driven responses to climate change—carbon taxes, cap-and-trade regimes, bridge fuels, and technological fixes. Yet different visions for the role of law are emerging around the peripheries of mainstream politics. These visions perceive the shifting ground of climate change and seek to harness law as a tool not for sustaining the norm, but instead for engaging (rather than ignoring) inevitable disruption and creating opportunities to reimagine the world unfettered by fixed boundaries.

Moreover, across the domains of the physical, psychological, and political, law frequently employs concepts of boundaries to classify humans—to determine who is worthy of inclusion and who will be excluded. These forms of conceptual boundaries are deeply embedded in our systems of law and tend to reinforce persistent patterns of inequality. Unaddressed conceptual boundaries intensify historical patterns of othering and exclusion along lines of race, gender, religion, sexuality, country of origin, and socio-economic status. Moreover, conceptual boundaries operate particularly perniciously for those who straddle categories of historical exclusion. Absent efforts to the contrary, unfettered climate change threatens to further deepen the subjugating tendencies of law’s conceptual boundaries.

In a worst-case climate world, we will be confronted with levels of destabilization that challenge us to rethink what is possible at every level of governance. In this climate-destabilized world, political boundaries are more mutable and, yet, more important than ever. The role of local governments in responding to adaptation needs, for example, becomes increasingly acute even as it becomes more difficult to constrain climate effects from one territorially bounded unit to another. Equally, the role of national governments in advancing mitigation, adaptation, and loss-and-damage responses becomes ever more urgent even as the futility of acting domestically in the absence of global cooperation becomes clear. In this worst-case climate world, political, ecological, and planetary boundaries are increasingly in tension.

In a stubbornly stasis-oriented world, imagining how a worst-case climate will alter the physical, psychological, and political parameters of our world remains at the periphery of our legal imagination. But in this worst-case climate world, shifting boundaries challenge fundamental assumptions about how the rule of law operates at every level. Bringing these shifting boundaries into focus now allows us to envisage the role that law can play in averting crisis and advancing positive change in a worst-case climate world. It also forces us to ask whether law—with its predilection for boundaries and predictability—is the best tool for the task.

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*** This blog post is part of a series of essays by the Environmental Law Collaborative (ELC) on the adaptation challenges of the worst-case climate scenario: a world that warms to 4°C by 2100.
Pace | Haub Environmental Law’s GreenLawBlog is co-hosting this series, along with Environmental Law Prof Blog, over the course of this month. ***