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Healthy Ecosystems Support International Peace and Security

EPA researchers played key roles in an international workshop and book on the relationship between the environment and worldwide human welfare.

Ice along the beach

Environmental problems don’t respect national boundaries.

Pollutants released into the air in one country can cause acid rain to fall in another. Contamination of a river as it flows through one nation can lead to fish kills or human disease in the next nation downstream. Gasses emitted in one country can contribute to climate change worldwide. An act of ecoterrorism that poisons food in one nation could lead to outbreaks of disease or food shortages in numerous nations in the global food chain.

Thus, the environment is crucial to human welfare not only locally but also internationally, and threats to the environment are threats to good relationships among nations.

In 2009, EPA scientists working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Exit EPA Disclaimer and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Science for Peace and Security Programme (SPS), held a major international workshop on ecosystem services at The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. The proceedings of this workshop have now been published as a book titled Achieving Environmental Security:  Ecosystem Services and Human Welfare. Exit EPA Disclaimer

“The term ‘environmental security’ refers to actions that guard against degradation of the environment,” explains EPA research ecologist William Kepner, one of the editors of the new book. “Protecting the environment is a key element in protecting human populations because people’s well being depends on the availability of sustainable resources and ecosystem services.”

“Ecosystem services” are the benefits that people receive from nature, such as clean air, clean water, and fertile soil. Ecosystem services are crucial to human health and well-being, but they are often taken for granted—until they are threatened or lost.

For the international workshop, experts from five continents and 20 nations came together to share their observations and research in a wide variety of fields, including agriculture, architecture, environmental linkages to poverty, humanitarian aid, environmental management, natural disasters, remote sensing, computer modeling, and public policy as they relate to ecosystem services and human health. The topics covered ranged from climate change to sustainable building design to the importance of natural landscapes to the potential impact of ecoterrorism on the food supply.

The involvement of NATO in this effort may seem surprising to some people because NATO often is regarded primarily as a military alliance. However, NATO has long supported scientific programs that promote world peace and security. Its many projects Exit EPA Disclaimer in this area include efforts to protect fragile ecosystems, counter manmade pollution and ecoterrorism, and assess the risks from natural disasters.

From EPA’s perspective, one of the principal benefits of the workshop and new book are that they draw attention to the value of ecosystem services. EPA wants the public to understand that these types of services can be as important—and valuable—as the kind or resources easier to attach dollar signs to.

“Public expectations and attitudes about the environment are changing,” says Mr. Kepner. “People want to know about environmental costs and benefits so that they can take that information into account in decision making. A better accounting of the effects of human actions on the environment will help people make informed decisions that will lead to the maintenance of a sustainable society.” Hopefully, such decisions will help to promote good relationships among nations as well.

EPA is the first federal agency to devote a national research program to developing a deeper scientific understanding how ecosystem services support human wellbeing.

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