Human Systems & Response

The annual net global economic value of services supplied by the natural world to the global economy has been estimated to be around $33 trillion. How much of this value is at risk? Are these figures even accurate? To whom or what does this value belong, and how does the value structure affect the behavior of individuals and societies? How can we create political and social structures that value these services accurately?

The urgency of these questions is palpable, especially for Houston and Texas, which are in many ways a microcosm for several global change challenges. For example, in Texas, many ecosystems are in privately-owned natural lands. These systems provide several social benefits, such as acting as carbon sinks, reducing flooding, and providing habitats for wildlife. What is the optimal balance between the benefits from preserving the ecosystem services on these lands, versus converting and developing them for industrial use? Also, what is the best way to evaluate, mitigate and adapt to natural hazards (e.g., floods and hurricanes) and make our ecosystems more resilient to them? Firms and local communities will need to engage in mutually beneficial agreements that ensure the viability and competitiveness of the local economy, while at the same time safe-guard communities from adverse effects, such as local pollution. What is the best way to provide political and economic incentives to accomplish this balance?

Moreover, climate-related damages affect economic well-being in ways that go well beyond the direct effects on economic productivity. They include, among others, costs from lost biodiversity, adverse effects on agriculture, the potential for large-scale immigration and conflict, and the spread of vector-borne as well as novel zoonotic diseases. As humans move more deeply into biodiversity hotspots and drive species migration around the world, the risk of novel, cross-species disease transmission will increase The impact on human well-being is likely to include famine, the disruption of food chains, declines in the availability of freshwater, decreasing ecotourism, and the lost potential for discovering new drugs to treat diseases.

Scholars in the Schools of Natural Sciences, Engineering, Business, Social Sciences, Humanities, as well as the Baker Institute for Public Policy are working on disparate elements of these problems. These elements range from understanding ecosystem services and their relationship to biodiversity to pricing and testing conservation agreements to exploring human-ecosystem relationships as portrayed in literature and art.

Research areas include:

  • Human Health
  • Climate Migration; Local Habitability
  • Environmental Justice
  • Public Policy
  • Food & Water Security
  • Civil Violence
  • Human Perceptions of Changing Environment
  • Gender and Labor Issues