Environmental Rights and Adaptation to Climate Change

Steve Vanderheiden

Steve Vanderheiden, who specializes in normative political theory and environmental politics with a particular interest in equity issues, democratic issues, and environmental issues as they pertain to climate change, is exploring what environmental rights should now look like, particularly territorial and water rights.

Vanderheiden is collaborating with philosophers, lawyers, and scientists to investigate the governance and allocation of surface waters under increasing scarcity. By looking at policies in California, Australia, and the Netherlands, Vanderheiden and his colleagues hope to inform funding bodies and government agencies how water use can be fairly prioritized. In the western U.S., senior water rights are currently over-allocated because they are based on historical amounts of water; however, these assumptions on available water no longer hold as water has become scarcer. There are constraints on what we can feasibly do with water since for any reasonable water reform to occur, the water rights holders must first see the benefit of the reform. Fortunately, many recognize that our existing system of dealing with surface water is not sustainable given expected changes in rain, water flow, and population growth. Possible solutions range from community-driven efforts such as xeriscaping to federal-level efforts such as buying up water rights (as is happening in Australia). Vanderheiden will look at the case of the Colorado River, linking it to a very similar, overdrawn river in Australia and parsing out the similarities and differences in governance and what kind of reform opportunities are available.