Tipping the Balance: Environmental Security in a Time of Scarce Resources and Conflicting Priorities

We can no longer ignore the fact that the world is changing. The one-two punch of climate change and rampant population increase is already squeezing the world’s limited resources, forcing us to make difficult choices about how we use our land, feed ourselves and power our technology. With time, these trade-offs will only become harder to negotiate.

News headlines across the country bear witness to environmental pressures in real time: a historic drought in California, record-breaking floods in South Carolina, receding glaciers and polar ice, and ever-expanding “dead zones” in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico are just a few examples from 2015 alone.

In the United States, environmental pressures fuel acrimonious political disagreements. But in other parts of the world, environmental stresses can result in armed conflict. Although the idea is not without controversy, some have suggested that the ongoing civil war in Syria was caused, at least in part, by drought conditions that strained the country’s agricultural industry.

Discussions that were once framed in terms of environmental sustainability—a forward-looking endeavor by nature—have now taken on a more urgent tone. The emerging concept of environmental security implicitly reframes the discussion, highlighting imminent threats to human safety and prosperity that demand immediate solutions.

The connection with other, more well-worn terms that use the word “security” is deliberate. National security, food security and economic security carry recognizable meaning and an immediate sense of purpose. Indeed, these ideas all overlap with the idea of environmental security. When the environment is strained and changing too rapidly for humans to keep pace with solutions, every construct of our civilization stands on uncertain ground.

University of Maryland researchers are already working to assess the scope and severity of environmental security threats in the United States and abroad.

“In this area, the University of Maryland is unique. And I don’t use that word often,” says Antonio Busalacchi, professor of atmospheric and oceanic science and director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) is a joint center between UMD’s Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geology, and Geographical Sciences that was initiated under a cooperative agreement with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We have the depth and breadth of a top-tier research institution, and our location has allowed us to build strong partnerships with federal agencies—NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in particular—as well as the intelligence community. Maryland is as well or better poised than any other university in America to take on and meet this challenge.”

Busalacchi also notes that the topic cuts across nearly every college on campus. Physical, agricultural and social scientists, engineers, public policy scholars and others at UMD will certainly be at the forefront as the world formulates responses and solutions to environmental security threats. But, as with any question of security, the first step is to gather intelligence and translate it for decision-makers.

“Environmental security encompasses the development and delivery of novel, actionable science that can be used to solve some of our most vexing environmental challenges,” says Melissa Kenney, an assistant research professor at ESSIC whose research focuses on environmental decision analysis. “These challenges demand an interdisciplinary approach. Just capturing the physical aspect is not enough—humans are always in the mix and part of these systems.”

With expertise in environmental science, observation and modeling across departments and in focused centers of knowledge, researchers in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences are equipped to work with governments, nonprofit institutions and corporations that are ready to invest in actionable solutions to environmental threats.

FEW For the Many

The most pressing environmental security challenges intersect with the most basic human needs. Clean water, nutritious food and reliable energy supplies are universally important, yet there are wide disparities in access to these resources across the globe. These three areas are so closely intertwined that they have spawned a new area of research, framed in terms of investigating the nexus where food, energy and water overlap. The idea has gained enough traction to earn its own acronym: FEW.

“You need water to produce energy, you need energy to produce water and you need both to produce food,” explains Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at UMD.

It’s tempting to think of these three resources as equally important legs of the same stool, but one stands out as particularly critical: water.

“Water is the lifeblood of the system. Where water goes, so go energy and food. And when water goes away, so do energy and food,” says Miralles-Wilhelm, who also serves as executive director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites (CICS), a partnership between UMD and NOAA that is managed by ESSIC.
In the U.S., this dynamic plays out most dramatically in the water-starved western states. In Arizona and Nevada, rapid urban development accounts for the most severe strain on water supplies. In California, however, the state’s multibillion-dollar agricultural export economy is the primary driver for water shortages.

“The water crisis in California has not been caused by the state’s residents but by the large number of agricultural exports. California pumps water
out of its aquifers and from as far away as the Colorado River for irrigation,” Miralles-Wilhelm explains. “And there are compound effects as well. Every time they export a pound of beef, for example, there is a water cost involved.”

In addition to cattle ranching, the irrigation of water-intensive crops such as almonds, as well as the practice of bottling and exporting drinking water, serve as highly visible flashpoints in the ongoing public debate about water use in California. While the debate is sometimes framed in terms of citizens versus industry, the reality is often more nuanced.

The energy sector also depends on water. California’s hydroelectric dams need regular rainfall, while nuclear and coal-fired power plants use massive amounts of water for cooling. As a result, drought conditions can lead to strains on the electric grid. Desalination plants, which produce usable freshwater from salty seawater, hold some promise for relieving the strain of drought, but they require a hefty up-front investment and use large amounts of energy for operation.

An International FEW Perspective

As a developed country with a large economy, the U.S. is not yet on the brink of a FEW crisis, but other countries have reached that point already. The developing world is at especially high risk, while many of the world’s ascendant economic powers, such as Brazil and China, are encountering new and unexpected challenges. Many of these developments carry implications for our national security. One particularly illustrative example is Pakistan.

Like California, much of Pakistan’s agriculture takes place in a large central valley with a semiarid climate. Unlike California, which draws water for irrigation from a variety of sources, the crops grown in Pakistan are fed primarily by a single source: the Indus River. Glaciers situated in the Karakoram Range to the north contribute as much as 40 percent of the Indus River’s flow, and climate change is putting the long-term survival of these glaciers at risk.

“In Pakistan, there are sharp trade-offs and competing interests between agriculture and the energy sector for water resources. There is also increased demand for water and energy in growing urban areas, where power outages have already led to protests and sociopolitical instability. It rapidly becomes a security issue and could become an international issue if India becomes squeezed,” explains Busalacchi, who contributed to a 2013 National Research Council report that featured a detailed case study of climate and water stress in Pakistan.

Busalacchi, Miralles-Wilhelm and Kenney all believe that the FEW nexus holds a lot of power as a conceptual framework to tackle environmental security threats at the international level.

As Busalacchi puts it, “We can’t look at food, energy or water in isolation. We need to chart a path based on interdependencies in order to inform solutions.”

To this end, Miralles-Wilhelm organized a workshop in October 2015, funded by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the World Bank, aimed at tackling some of the most pressing environmental security questions at the FEW nexus. The two-day event brought together experts from nearly every sector, including faculty members from four UMD colleges and schools. Representatives from U.S. federal agencies, industry, the international development community and academia gathered to offer their perspectives and share case studies.

“The FEW nexus helps us visualize points of overlap among these three systems and the experts who study them,” says Kristal Jones, an assistant research scientist at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), which is funded by an award to UMD from the National Science Foundation. Jones presented her work on data synthesis at the October workshop. “Plant ecologists and atmospheric scientists may ask different kinds of questions and collect different kinds of data, but working together within the FEW framework can help reveal big-picture relationships, like how climate change impacts agricultural productivity and ultimately food security.”

Careful synthesis of information from various sources can help scientists more closely examine the consequences of specific policy decisions. As Miralles-Wilhelm says, “Untangling connections and identifying trade-offs is our big focus.”

A Tale of Two Coasts

While water shortages put pressure on the western United States, other areas find themselves with the opposite problem: too much water that often arrives far too quickly.

Storm surges that cause river flooding and coastal inundation—paired with long-term sea level rise as a result of global warming—present perhaps the greatest environmental security risk to the eastern United States. A decade’s worth of news headlines tells the tale, from Katrina to Sandy and, most recently, the record-breaking floods in South Carolina caused by Hurricane Joaquin in 2015.

“There was a lot of talk about the South Carolina event being a thousand-year flood,” Busalacchi explains. “Whether or not it reached that threshold, what’s clear is that past is no longer prologue. We have to plan our infrastructure based not on what we experienced in the last 20 years, but what we’re likely to experience in the future. A hundred-year storm may become a 20-year storm.”

Coastal areas within the United States will be disproportionately affected by future hurricanes and tropical storms. This is especially problematic because many of our largest cities—home to as much as 40 percent of the country’s population—are situated in coastal areas. Major structural damage notwithstanding, in best-case scenarios these storms will continue to create severe, expensive and often debilitating disruptions to transit, energy and commercial supply chain systems.

Tracking storms and predicting negative impacts—such as flooding—are crucial tasks for ensuring environmental security. On the surface, the relationship can appear simple: heavy rains lead to flooding. However, difficulties arise when predicting the scope and severity of flooding, especially in developing countries where flood data are scarce or nonexistent. Many variables have to be considered, including soil type, vegetation and topography. Depending on these parameters, the same amount of rainfall could lead to severe flooding in one area and little more than a full rain gauge elsewhere.

UMD is home to one of the best tools currently available to predict flooding. Developed by ESSIC’s Robert Adler and Huan Wu, the Global Flood Monitoring System (GFMS) is a hybrid monitoring tool and predictive model. Adler and Wu built the system using 13 years of data from NASA’s Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission (TRMM) satellite, which was decommissioned in 2015.

The GFMS integrates real-time data from TRMM’s successor project—the multi-satellite, multi-national Global Precipitation Measurement mission—with hydrologic models that account for soil saturation, topography and other relevant on-the-ground variables. The end result is a series of maps, refreshed at three-hour intervals, representing the status of floodwaters throughout the course of a storm event.

“If you have a fairly accurate measure of how much rainwater is coming down to the surface of Earth, the model helps to determine how much is going to soak in and how much is available to runoff, and you follow the water downstream,” Adler says.

The maps and data the GFMS produces are valuable for scientific studies, but perhaps their greatest strength lies in providing federal agencies, international relief organizations and other stakeholders with up-to-date information that can inform their efforts.

“We check the GFMS nearly every single day to monitor current flood concerns and also to assist in discovering new flood events that may not have been reported yet or are developing,” says Emily Niebuhr, a meteorologist with the Emergency Preparedness & Support Division of the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

Environmental security depends on monitoring conditions and predicting storms, flooding and other threats. As these events increase in frequency and severity, maintaining and improving a robust public infrastructure of floodwalls, levees and dams will prove to be an equally important line of defense.

Harnessing Nature

Traditionally, assessments of protective infrastructure have primarily accounted for human-built structures. But another emerging concept—the prioritization of natural infrastructure, such as wetlands and barrier reefs—is gaining traction in both the scientific and policy worlds. A key milestone occurred in October 2015, when the Obama administration issued a memo explicitly instructing all federal agencies to account for natural infrastructure in their planning processes.

Natural infrastructure is an offshoot of a concept often referred to as ecosystem services or natural capital. Broadly stated, these ideas provide a framework for describing benefits that humans receive from healthy natural ecosystems and wildlife. Natural infrastructure digs just a bit deeper, looking at efforts to augment the built environment with strategically placed artificial ecosystems, such as green roofs, or efforts to preserve intact wetlands and other valuable living systems.

“A lot of attention has been paid to the role that natural capital and ecosystem services can play in ensuring well-being for citizens,” says Ariana Sutton-Grier, an assistant research scientist at ESSIC and an ecosystem science adviser for NOAA. “Three consecutive presidential administrations—Clinton, Bush and Obama—have said that we need to pay attention to the role of natural capital in our economy and how it helps support a successful society. So, this may be a watershed moment.”

Coastal wetlands can, in some cases, protect against storm surges better than human-made floodwalls. Healthy oyster reefs can contribute to this effect while filtering polluted waters. Intact forests are the best defense against erosion, especially in mountainous areas with dynamic topography. Nature itself could prove to be among the most effective defenses against environmental security threats.

A Path Forward

Scientifically speaking, the pursuit of an environmentally secure world won’t be hampered by a lack of data. If anything, scientists have access to more data than they can handle in a productive way. Instead, the challenge lies in identifying which data sets are most important and packaging them into user-friendly formats so that they can help inform decision-makers.

SESYNC recently partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support the White House’s Climate Data Initiative. The end goal of the project is a new software platform that can recognize the inherent connections between diverse FEW data sets.

“The Climate Data Initiative mandated that each federal agency make a lot of data publicly available for use,” says Nick Magliocca, a research associate at SESYNC. “The platform for this, Data.gov, is centralized and open, which is great, but you’re still dealing with a catalog. It doesn’t tie any of the data to conceptual frameworks. We’re trying to add some value by developing discovery tools that will collect all these data and organize and link them logically.”

The effort to customize and package data depends on a two-way dialogue between scientists and stakeholders. Without active input from decision-makers, it can be difficult to decide what information holds the highest priority.

“Previously we had a ‘loading dock’ mentality, where we told stakeholders and decision-makers ‘go ahead and back up your truck and load up whatever you need,’” Busalacchi adds. “We need a better up-front appreciation for what society really needs.”

Where to start is a tricky question, often beset by the classic chicken vs. egg problem: without baseline information, it’s hard to identify priorities. But without priorities, it’s hard to identify what information is most valuable.

“So far, a lot of the work we’ve done has been on the disciplinary boxes, not the arrows that connect these disciplinary insights,” Kenney says, invoking the design of the flow charts often used to describe connections and trade-offs. Kenney speaks from her experience leading the effort to develop and recommend climate change indicators for the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which coordinates climate research across 13 different federal departments and agencies. “You need to gather some information independently before you can look at the interconnections. Indicators are a great opportunity to connect scientific advancements with outputs needed to inform decisions.”

Generally speaking, indicators such as those proposed by USGCRP are not a new idea. Indicators such as gross domestic product, consumer price index and unemployment rate are regularly reported and used to characterize the health of the U.S. economy, for example. The expansion of this approach to indicate the health of the environment has taken a lot of hard work and careful thought, but Kenney says significant progress has already been made.

“Much of what we recommended to USGCRP wasn’t even low-hanging fruit—it could more accurately be thought of as ‘fruit on the ground,’” Kenney says. “A number of our recommendations were climate indicators that are already being widely used and implemented, such as minimum arctic sea ice, global temperature and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The real opportunity now is to use our research to build out the indicators system, given the information needs of stakeholders.”

Exploring Worst-Case Scenarios

Efforts to address environmental security rely on the best scientific assessments of past and present trends, with an eye to predicting the near-term future. But how will society’s choices today affect longer-term outcomes?

To probe this question, Eugenia Kalnay, a UMD Distinguished University Professor and Eugenia Brin Professor of Data Assimilation in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, teamed with SESYNC systems scientist and UMD alumnus Safa Motesharrei and Jorge Rivas of the Institute of Global Environment and Society to develop the Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY) model.

HANDY’s starting point is the “predator-prey” model used by biologists to understand animal population dynamics. The researchers applied that model to coupled human-nature systems, adding two new variables: accumulation of wealth and inequality.

“HANDY shows that different types of societies can reach a sustainable state if their policies on population growth, resource depletion and consumption, and socio-economic inequality promote long-term sustainability,” says Motesharrei.

The model can estimate a human system’s carrying capacity, which is the population size that can be sustained at a given level of depletion of natural resources.

“If a society overshoots its carrying capacity by a small amount, it’s still possible to reach sustainability. If the overshoot is too large, a full societal collapse would be hard to avoid,” says Kalnay, who is also a member of the United Nations Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Thankfully, there is still time to address the many-faceted environmental issues that threaten societies across the globe. Despite the work yet to be done, world leaders are recognizing that environmental security is and should be a huge priority for decision-makers.

“This is an issue of today. It is already happening now. We can go back just 10 years, and we will already see conflicts tied to environment-related shortages and trade-offs,” Miralles-Wilhelm says. “I never say there’s a point of no return, but I do think we will see the situation deteriorating over the next few decades. The time to act is now. Perfect information will never be available, but it may not even be needed. We can do a lot with what we already know.”

Writer: Matthew Wright

See also:

  • Alumni Tipping the Balance: A sidebar highlighting alumni who are working to protect our resources.
  • A Hub for Collaboration: A sidebar highlighting interdisciplinary centers and and institute at UMD that serve as hubs for collaboration with federal agencies and others within the academic community.

This article was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Odyssey magazine. To read other stories from that issue, please visit go.umd.edu/odyssey.

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.