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Global Future of the Environment

Global Future of the Environment

September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

The Energy-Water Nexus and Climate Change

Paul Sullivan

Climate change will likely increasingly affect both supplies and demands of energy and water. Critical infrastructure related to energy and water will likely be at increasing risk.


As some parts of the world warm up there will be increasing demands for electricity for air conditioning. Electricity generation will likely continue to need massive amounts of water for cooling systems, unless considerable technology changes occur—or unless there is a switch to ways of producing electricity that consume less water, such as wind and non-CSP solar. Another way out of this is making our building insulation and architecture more resilient to outside temperature changes.

Some electricity generating stations and significant parts of the electricity grids could be severely impacted by increased storm activities, flooding, and rising sea-levels. Most nuclear and fossil fuel plants are near rivers or coastlines. Other electricity generation stations could be effected by changes in the hydrological cycles that lead to lower rainfall and declines in river flows. The problems facing generating stations and power grids could include too much water or not enough, flooding or drought, along with increasing storm activities and rising sea levels.

Often large amounts of energy are needed to pump, treat, and move water along pipelines from where the water is to where it is needed. Increases in the demand for water will likely require more energy. That energy production will need more water.

In many parts of the world diesel is used to pump water out of the ground to irrigate crops. In places experiencing declines in rainfall there will be greater needs for water pumped out of the ground. As more water is pumped out of the ground the water table drops further—and on and on. Also, as ground water is drained and rainfall declines in some part of the world there will likely be a greater need for desalinated water. Desalination is often energy intensive.

Flooding, rising sea levels, and increasing storm activity could also affect oil and gas refinery operations, especially those along rivers, coastlines, and low-lying areas. Oil, gas, and coal extraction and processing can use lots of water. As water becomes scarcer in some areas difficult decisions may need to be made on how to use that water for either energy production and processing, agriculture, or other uses.

Subsidies increase demand for both water and energy. When subsidized energy is used to pump, desalinate, treat, and transport subsidized water that is used to produce subsidized food then the increased demands on energy, water, and food are magnified. If subsidies are not reduced or eliminated in some of the most energy and water short places in the world, then the effects of climate change for these places will be magnified.

The energy-water nexus should be a vital focus for any policy and technology changes to be developed to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change. Policies should focus on the nexus, not just on water and energy. The same could be said for the water-energy-food nexus, but that is an even far more complicated story.

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of economics at the National Defense University, an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Department at Georgetown, a senior adjunct fellow in Future Global Resource Threat at the Federation of American Scientists, and a senior international fellow at NCUSAR. He advises at very senior levels on issues related to energy, water, food, and economic security globally, but most particularly regarding the Middle East and North Africa. 

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