The Endangered Species Act and Climate Change: Selected Legal Issues

The Endangered Species Act and Climate Change: Selected Legal Issues. Congressional Research Service. Linda Tsang. September 20, 2019

For more than a decade, federal agencies have grappled with how to address climate change effects when implementing the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA). The ESA aims to protect threatened and endangered fish, wildlife, and plants from extinction. As set forth by Congress, one of the main purposes of the ESA is to “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved.” 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (collectively, the Services) have acknowledged that the changing climate may threaten the survival of and habitat for some species. As noted by courts and legal scholars, the ESA does not expressly require the Services to consider the effect of climate change in their ESA decisions. However, the ESA and its implementing regulations (1) direct the Services to consider “natural or manmade factors affecting [a species’] continued existence” when determining whether a species should be protected under the ESA; and (2) require the Services to analyze cumulative effects on a species’ survival when analyzing whether federal actions jeopardize a species protected under the Act. The courts and the Services have interpreted these provisions as requiring the Services to consider climate change effects in the ESA decisionmaking process. Various lawsuits have challenged the Services’ interpretation of complex scientific data or models that predict short- and long-term effects from a changing global climate on specific species and their habitats.

[PDF format, 22 pages].

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