Webcast Recap

Development, population, security, scarcity, climate, and natural resources: Increasingly, policymakers are realizing that the issues in this laundry list are inextricably linked. But how do policymakers break out of their institutional stovepipes to address these connections in an integrated way?

In an event hosted by the Environmental Change and Security Program on September 2, 2010, Alex Evans of New York University and Global Dashboard and Mathew Burrows of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) focused on the current state of integrated scarcity issues in the policymaking world.

A Developing Problem

"Why should we be worried with scarcity issues in the first place?" asked Evans. The crux of the problem, he said, is that people are simply consuming more across the board – particularly more energy, water, and food. In addition to general population growth, higher demand is driven by an expanding global middle class that is shifting to more Western-style diets and consuming more energy.

Globally, demand in key resources is outpacing supply:

• Demand for oil is rising by a percentage point each year, and the International Energy Association has warned that investment is not keeping up;
• Demand for water will increase 32 percent by 2025, but one of the first impacts of climate change is expected to be less available water; and
• Demand for food will increase 50 percent by 2030, but food supplies are only growing by one percent annually.

You can't address one of these scarcity issues without affecting another, argued Evans. In Haiti, for example, deforestation led to soil loss and erosion, thus degrading agricultural land. Deforestation also changed the country's precipitation patterns. Together, these effects reduced food supplies even before the earthquake. Today, the UN estimates that more than 2.4 million people in Haiti are food-insecure.

Evans recommended that these concerns be better integrated into current development and aid efforts, focusing on five areas:

• Establishing land tenure and renewable resources;
• Exploring the overlaps between resilience and peacebuilding;
• Empowering women and stabilizing population growth;
• Improving agricultural investment; and
• Increasing general investment in the energy sector.

A New International System

In addition to the physical dangers of scarcity, Evans pointed out that the perception of scarcity can drive what he sees as dangerous behavioral dynamics such as protectionism.

"Look at the way 30-plus countries slapped export restrictions on their exports of food in 2008," said Evans. "It's perceptions of scarcity driving irrational behavior, it's fertile ground for panic and we need to factor that into our policymaking." He called for a mechanism similar to NAFTA, which restricts sudden price changes, to help the global trade system become more resilient to changes in energy and food supplies.

Burrows pointed out that a big reason for the rising disparity between food, water, and energy demand and supply is the large "middle class" of emerging powers. "You are seeing this phenomenal change going on on the resource side, but at the same time, the international system is in great flux," he said.

Scarcity will also affect the international legal system as well. "Of the world's 263 transboundary river systems, 158 lack any kind of cooperative management framework," said Evans, asking if they could be peacefully managed during times of scarcity. He offered another example: How will the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea handle coastlines that change with the climate? "We haven't really begun to ‘stress test' existing legal infrastructure, to look for these kinds of instances," said Evans.

The biggest elephant in the "international room," however, is how to settle the issue of carbon sharing, without which there can be little global cooperation on these issues that does not end in a zero-sum game, Evans said:

For me the jury is still very much out on whether there are limits on growth per se, as a result of scarcity – I'm not convinced of that yet. But I think it is clear that there are obviously limits to how much carbon we can put in the atmosphere, how much oil there is, how much land and water is available, and so on. We can do a huge amount with efficiencies and new technologies, but I think we're kidding ourselves if we think that efficiencies and new technologies get us off the hook all together from having to face up to the distributional questions, the questions of fair shares that arise in a world of limits.

Is Integrated Policymaking Possible?

Government has come a long way towards addressing scarcity, said Burrows, but serious structural issues remain because there are too many established, vested interests at stake. Often, the tactical takes priority over the strategic: "A lot of these issues, by their very nature, are long-range in character," he said. "In my experience there are more policymakers that are simply focused on the tactical [and] fewer that take these longer-range perspectives." In addition, he pointed out the divide between government and the scientific community continues to impede policymakers' understanding of the technological options available.

On the positive side, Burrows highlighted improved work by government planning offices, particularly in the intelligence community and the military. "If you compare Global Trends 2020 and Global Trends 2025…you'll see a huge difference in terms of how we dealt with climate change, environment, and the resource issues," said Burrows of the NIC's reports. He said that the intelligence community is performing more long-range analyses, and that other countries like China are now starting similar global trends analyses.

Despite the silo problem, the best solution may not be in creating new government agencies and closing down others, said Evans. "I think instead perhaps we need to see the challenge as more creating shared awareness, common analysis; a common sense of objectives among existing institutional configurations. I think we may find we get better rates of return on that," he said.

While U.S. and other governments are only beginning to grasp these issues, Burrows praised NGOs and think tanks, which "have played such a big part…in creating those sorts of networks and inter-relationships" that have raised the profile of scarcity issues.

While the political space for dealing with these issues is not there yet, Evans argued that it will eventually emerge – most likely after some kind of shock, because "after sudden-onset crises, people are often, for a short time, prepared to think the unthinkable."

An adequate response requires readying integrated approaches to address the integrated problem of scarcity. "It's necessary to have the solutions, so when the crisis hits, you can have some action, and I think we are doing that legwork," said Burrows.

Drafted by Schuyler Null and edited by Meaghan Parker.


  • Alex Evans

    New York University
  • Mathew J. Burrows

    Director, Strategic Foresight Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council