Sustainability Indicators for Coupled Human-Earth Systems

Friday, 19 December 2014
Safa Motesharrei, University of Maryland College Park, College Park, MD, United States; National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), Annapolis, MD, United States, Jorge R Rivas, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, Political Science, Minneapolis, MN, United States and Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, United States
Over the last two centuries, the Human System went from having a small impact on the Earth System (including the Climate System) to becoming dominant, because both population and per capita consumption have grown extremely fast, especially since about 1950. We therefore argue that Human System Models must be included into Earth System Models through bidirectional couplings with feedbacks. In particular, population should be modeled endogenously, rather than exogenously as done currently in most Integrated Assessment Models. The growth of the Human System threatens to overwhelm the Carrying Capacity of the Earth System, and may be leading to catastrophic climate change and collapse.

We propose a set of Ecological and Economic “Sustainability Indicators” that can employ large data-sets for developing and assessing effective mitigation and adaptation policies. Using the Human and Nature Dynamical Model (HANDY) and Coupled Human-Climate-Water Model (COWA), we carry out experiments with this set of Sustainability Indicators and show that they are applicable to various coupled systems including Population, Climate, Water, Energy, Agriculture, and Economy. Impact of nonrenewable resources and fossil fuels could also be understood using these indicators. We demonstrate interconnections of Ecological and Economic Indicators. Coupled systems often include feedbacks and can thus display counterintuitive dynamics. This makes it difficult for even experts to see coming catastrophes from just the raw data for different variables. Sustainability Indicators boil down the raw data into a set of simple numbers that cross their sustainability thresholds with a large time-lag before variables enter their catastrophic regimes. Therefore, we argue that Sustainability Indicators constitute a powerful but simple set of tools that could be directly used for making policies for sustainability.