Adaptation Opportunities and Constraints in Coupled Systems: Evidence from the U.S. Energy-Water Nexus

The Science

Researchers from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory conducted a review of the consequences of adaptation focused on single sectors in comparison to holistic (multiple systems/sectors) approaches with examples from the U.S. energy-water nexus (EWN).   The study identifies three pervasive constraints to U.S.-EWN adaptation that are present across systems and scales that include:
– Insufficient data and information
– Path dependence
– Fragmented and disorganized institutions

Past and projected changes to U.S. energy and water systems that have or will result in unrecognized tradeoffs, maladaptation, ineffective outcomes, and missed ancillary or co-benefits in related systems were evaluated. Opportunities to overcome constraints to adaptation at national and sub-national scales across the U.S.-EWN are explored in light of these changes.

The Impact

The current, sector-specific approach to adaptation creates potentially unrecognized consequences that make achieving even modest adaptation objectives difficult. A holistic exploration of complex, multi-system dynamics can inform a broad range of multi-sector adaptation studies and analyses in ways that can increase synergies and avoid negative consequences in related, interdependent systems.


Adaptation to single and multiple stressors continues to be a priority across systems to address future changes and avoid adverse consequences.  However, adaptation efforts remain disparate across sectors. Such sector-specific approaches to adaptation are inherently limited reflecting the often coupled nature of systems — they interact to affect the inputs, constraints, and outcomes of each other. Research reported here demonstrates that failure to consider coupled systems in adaptation creates unrecognized tradeoffs, ineffective outcomes, or missed benefits of strategies. Holistic approaches to adaptation could help avoid negative consequences and realize benefits across systems and scales, but various constraints are associated with the effective deployment of such approaches in practice. For example, adaptation within the U.S. energy-water nexus (EWN) is hindered by a range of constraints, three of which are particularly pervasive: insufficient data and information, path dependence, and fragmented and disorganized institutions. Opportunities exist to overcome U.S.-EWN adaptation constraints. First, the availability and quality (collection, geolocation, methodologies) of relevant U.S.-EWN data requires improvement. Next, researchers and stakeholders should be able to access and analyze U.S.-EWN data alongside projections of decision-relevant systems and scales. Efforts should focus on creating and disseminating actionable information for decision-making that includes information on costs, benefits, and impacts on related systems. Prioritizing holistic adaptation now, before adaptation implementation is prevalent, increases the potential for synergistic actions and while avoiding unintended, adverse consequences in related systems.

Principal Investigator(s)

Ryan McManamay
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Related Links


This material is based upon work supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Integrated Assessment Program. ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the U.S. Department of Energy under contract DE-AC05- 00OR22725.


Ernst, K.M., and Preston, B.L. 2017. “Adaptation opportunities and constraints in coupled systems: Evidence from the U.S. energy-water nexus,” Environmental Science and Policy, 70:38-45. DOI:10.1016/j.envsci.2017.01.001