Science Wednesday: What Does National Security Have To Do With The Environment?

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By Alan Hecht and Joseph Fiksel

Some people might be surprised to hear that there’s a National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) conference this week here in Washington, DC focused on national security and the environment.

There is, and it brings together a distinguished group of international political leaders, scientists, and academic, including our own EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and the famous Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime Minister of Norway who led the preparation of the 1987 UN Report, Our Common Future, famous for its classic definition of sustainable development.

As sustainability scientists ourselves, we’re happy to see the link between national security and environmental sustainability gaining more attention.
Today national security means more than defending against military attacks. It is about dealing with the pressures of population growth, energy and material demand, and competition for access to land, water, minerals, and other vital natural resources. These global pressures are driving not only climate change but also degradation of water, soil, forests, and wetlands, which in turn may compromise energy, food, and resource security.

EPA was first prompted to engage in environmental security in 1995 by then Administrator William C. Reilly, who asked the Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) to look beyond the horizon and anticipate environmental problems that may emerge in the 21st century. In response, the SAB reported: “global environmental quality is a matter of strategic national interest that must be recognized publicly and formally.”

Today, EPA is again investigating how sustainable development can alleviate the fundamental threats of resource depletion and economic instability. In November 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to make recommendations about sustainability and the EPA.

The resulting NAS report and recommendations were delivered to EPA in September 2011 and is now the subject of extensive internal and external discussions.

As EPA scientists, it’s nice to see our collective work help advance the understanding that national security entails keeping our critical resources—including water, soil, energy, and minerals—that support global economic and social well-being, safe and secure. Our work is protecting human health and the environment, and is also helping to keep our country safe.

About the Authors:
Dr. Alan Hecht is a leader in sustainability research and a Senior Advisor to the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development.
Dr. Joseph Fiksel is a sustainability expert from The Ohio State University who is currently on a special appointment at EPA helping to incorporate systems thinking into the Agency’s research programs.

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