Deep inside the Pentagon and the secret world of the intelligence community, a radical idea is emerging about national security. It can be summarized this way:

  • The best war is no war.
  • The best weapons are plowshares.
  • The world cannot be secure without sustainable societies and strong communities.

This idea—that our security depends on building societies rather than fortresses—is being promoted by cutting-edge military thinkers and codified in official national defense and security policies.

For example, the late U.S. Army Lt. Col. Shannon Beebe, a West Point graduate and veteran of combat and “stability deployments” around the world, wrote,

The concept of security has far too long been interpreted too narrowly.… It has been related to nation-states more than people.… Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives. For many of them, security symbolized protection from the threat of diseases, hunger, unemployment, crime [or terrorism], social conflict, political repression and environmental hazards. With the dark shadows of the Cold War receding, one can see that many conflicts are within the nations rather than between the nations.1

In their widely published National Strategic Narrative2 in May 2011, Navy Captain Wayne Porter and Colonel Mark Mykleby (United States Marine Corps, ret.), who at the time was a senior security advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the United States should become the international leader in sustainability at every level of society.

Three years earlier, the U.S. Army’s brain trust issued a new operations manual calling for greater use of “soft power”—the collaboration of many different agencies of government to help unstable nations build strong institutions and thriving economies. Similar thoughts are part of the president’s 2010 National Security Policy and the 2011 National Military Strategy (NMS) from the Department of Defense. The NMS notes that “preventing wars is as important as winning them, and far less costly.”3

This approach to security implicates each of us—every household, neighborhood, and community. It makes international security an act of citizenship, not unlike the war bonds, victory gardens, and oil conservation that engaged American citizens during World War II. Today, however, that act of citizenship is a substantially greater challenge than supporting soldiers at war. There are two reasons: First, in global climate change we are facing arguably the greatest threat to security that humanity has ever encountered. Climate change knows no front lines, no theater of battle. Virtually every part of the world, including the United States, is affected. Second, in this time of budget deficits and government downsizing, we can no longer depend on government alone to protect us.

For the pervasive and highly personal dimension of climate security, we need look no further than the weather. While many of us were content at one time to assume that climate change was not real, or that it would not become an issue for generations, there is a growing consensus among climate scientists, policymakers, and insurance executives that the extreme weather events of recent years are here to stay and have been made worse, if not caused by, global climate change. Weather-related disasters appear to be the new norm. The questions we must face are how we will adapt to impacts that are now inevitable, how we will prevent those that are not, and who will pay. The answers, as many military experts now acknowledge, are a matter of national security. There is much we must do, both nationally and in our own communities, to increase our preparedness and resilience.

The New Normal

Ever since the majority of climate scientists began predicting the impacts of global climate change, most have been reluctant to attribute specific weather events to global warming. No single event can be called evidence of climate change, they have cautioned; the evidence of climate change is a long-term pattern of weather extremes, somewhere between 17 and 30 years.

That pattern is upon us. Weather-related disasters have increased dramatically around the world over the last half century. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration, there have been more than 2,000 major disasters in the United States over the last six decades.4 Over the last three decades, 112 of these have been billion-dollar events, inflicting total costs of more than $750 billion through June 2011.5

In December 2011, the number of billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States climbed to 12, smashing the record and totaling more than the U.S. experienced in all of the 1980s.6 A month earlier while meeting in Africa, the world’s top climate scientists warned political leaders to get ready for more “unprecedented extreme weather” due to global warming.7

Some members of the U.S. insurance industry, which has been slow to attribute their rising losses to climate change, are taking notice. Thomas Wilson, chief executive officer of America’s largest home and automobile insurer, Allstate, has informed investors that the company will now assume that severe weather is “a permanent change as opposed to an anomaly.”8

Warnings about the financial and human impacts of climate change are growing more intense. A recent assessment by CNA and Oxfam predicts significant economic and social strain around the world in the years ahead: “The U.S. government and humanitarian organizations could face a staggering challenge with significant implications for international stability and national security in the coming years. Two billion people live in regions expected to become severely water-stressed. More than 600 million live in at-risk coastal areas.” For the United States specifically, the report says, “at the same time that fiscal pressures are putting more strain on budgets, the [country] is likely to face substantially increasing demands on its humanitarian response systems as a result of climate change.”9


The number of disasters, per state, that exceeded $1 billion in damages since 1980.

Unfortunately, CNA and Oxfam are predicting a crisis that is already under way. As I began writing this in August 2011, millions of people in the Horn of Africa were in danger of starving due to a deadly mixture of war, poor policy, and climate changes blamed for the region’s worst drought in 60 years. Nearly four million people were in urgent need of humanitarian help; another eight million needed food assistance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress remains in deep denial about anthropogenic climate change and our new reality of extreme weather. Conservatives in the 112th Congress have repeatedly introduced legislation to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate carbon emissions; they are attempting to kill virtually all government programs associated with climate impact remediation, including U.S. funding for international efforts to help the world’s most vulnerable people adapt.

In 2011, the federally funded National Flood Insurance Program, which subsidizes insurance for property located in floodplains, found itself $18 billion in debt, not counting the increased losses from that year’s flood disasters.10

Struggling with the nation’s debt and the downgrading of the country’s credit, members of Congress are looking for new ways to cut federal spending on disaster mitigation and response. As Admiral James Loy, a senior national security official in the last Bush administration notes, “What they’re really suggesting is the federal government is going to spend less in the future, when in fact every projection that we see suggests more storms.”11

These simultaneous trends—more frequent and violent weather-related catastrophes, concern about the national debt, the downsizing of government, and the institutionalization of climate denial—are the makings of a train wreck. If we are smart, we will use this growing insecurity to reshape how we think and how our communities behave.

Risky Thinking

At root, we cause many of our “natural disasters,” not nature. They are the result of a dangerous mindset about the relationship between people and ecosystems. Our vulnerability to floods—the most common type of natural disaster in the United States—is a case in point. Ten million American households are located in areas with significant flood risks. Even before the record floods of 2011, annual flood damages in the United States averaged $2.4 billion.12

When flooding became severe enough to emerge as a national issue in the late 1920s, Congress responded in 1936 with the National Flood Control Act. As the name of the legislation indicates, the act was based on the assumption that we could control flooding by subduing rivers. Congress assigned the job to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose army of bulldozers would allow people to build their homes and businesses in hazard areas.

This policy, still in effect today, has fatal flaws. First, it is based on the assumption that we are smart enough to control natural systems. That assumption has been disproven again and again over the last 75 years by devastating floods in areas thought to be protected by dams and levees.

Second, the policy is based on the perception that ecosystems and people are adversaries—a failure to recognize our codependence on the natural systems and ecosystem services around us.

Third, we have assumed that the correct method of controlling ecosystems is with engineered structures—designed in the case of floods to change the behavior of rivers so that we can avoid changing the behavior of people.

Fourth—and this seems particularly true in the United States—we have considered it our God-given right to live where we please, consume what we please, and pollute as we please without much thought of the consequences.

With environmental, economic, and political dissonance all around us, it is obviously time to rethink these assumptions.

An Imminent Storm

Let’s look more closely at the gathering clouds.

Rising costs/declining budgets: The latest survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that 35 states are projecting budget shortfalls in the years immediately ahead.13 Yet, the number of major weather disasters and their costs keep rising.

Aging infrastructure: The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that there are more than 85,000 dams in the United States; their average age is 51 years. Only 11 percent of them are owned or regulated by the federal government; the rest must be maintained, repaired, and rehabilitated by others, typically local governments. But the condition of the nation’s dams suggests that local governments have not been keeping up. The latest analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) found 15,237 high-hazard dams in the United States; more than 4,000 were judged unsafe. The ASCE gives America’s dams a grade of D.14

Levees got an even worse grade. There are more than 100,000 miles of levees in the United States, 85 percent of them locally owned. Today, four of every ten Americans live in locations ostensibly protected by levees. Many levees were built originally to protect sparsely populated rural areas and farms. Over the decades, people have moved into those areas. The result is that many populated areas are “protected” by levees built to insufficient standards.

In addition, the extreme rainfalls and snowmelts we are experiencing today often exceed the design capacity of flood control structures. That was the case in 2011 along the lower Mississippi River and in the city of Minot, North Dakota. Both were flooded when upriver dams were opened because rain and snowmelt threatened to exceed the dams’ capacities.


Liz Roll/ FEMA News Photo
In 2000, the historic Tivoli United Methodist Church, which had been flooded several times in the previous five years, was moved out of harm’s way and relocated 500 feet across highway 220 in Lycoming County. The effort was part of FEMA’s Project Impact.

Even the levees for which the federal government is responsible can become dangerous because of deferred maintenance. The obvious example is the levee failure responsible for most of the damage New Orleans suffered after Hurricane Katrina.

In 2009, the Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimated that $50 billion is needed over five years to repair these structures, and another $12 billion should be spent over ten years to eliminate the backlog of deficient dams.14

Nevertheless, other elements of the nation’s aging infrastructure are getting more attention, including how we will pay for highways now that the National Highway Trust Fund is virtually insolvent.15

Taxpayer liability: While fiscal hawks oppose tax increases to help balance government budgets, natural disasters are increasing taxpayer liability. In addition to subsidizing flood insurance, taxpayers support crop insurance for farmers. The government’s costs in that program rose from $2.2 billion in 2000 to $7 billion in 2009. Government costs dropped again in 2010 because of low crop prices, but several factors may increase taxpayer liability: larger and more frequent crop losses due to drought, flood, pests, and disease, all of these among the predicted results of climate change; and higher crop prices due to lower supplies. In effect, climate change has begun to impose tax increases on the American people.

Energy insecurity: Climate change already is affecting energy security in the United States. Coal, oil, and natural gas production require significant amounts of water, often in states suffering from deep drought. Nuclear power production was curtailed in southeastern states in 2007–2008 because of shortages of water for cooling reactors. In 2011, for the second year in a row, three nuclear reactors operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority were shut down because the rivers from which they normally extract cooling water reached 90 degrees.16 The Associated Press reports that 24 of the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants are in extreme drought areas. In some areas of the country—for example, in Colorado where oil companies are planning to develop oil from shale—energy companies are competing for water with cities and farms.17

Heat-related fatalities: Although floods are the most common weather-related disaster in the United States, the most deadly is heat. An average of 1,500 Americans are killed each year by heat waves,18 more fatalities than are caused by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning combined. The most vulnerable segment of the population is people 65 years old and older, a group that is expanding rapidly as baby boomers age. In July 2011 alone, more than 1,000 heat records were set in the United States; 132 million Americans were under heat alerts.19


Given these mounting problems, what can we and our communities do to make ourselves more secure? Here are some suggestions.

Provide the U.S. military with adequate resources for clean energy: The Department of Defense (DOD) has emerged as America’s aspirational leader in low-carbon renewable energy—the technologies we need to deploy worldwide to reduce the threat of global warming. The ambitious goals that all four branches of the service have set for acquiring renewable energy systems have the potential to provide the large sustained market that corporations and investors need to help us make the transition to a clean energy economy.

In addition, the U.S. military has long been one of our most important assets for providing humanitarian assistance to the victims of disasters at home and abroad. And as I have noted, the military’s emerging priorities include efforts to increase the well-being and stability of the world’s least stable countries.

The military’s capacity to lead in each of these areas is threatened by federal budget cuts. DOD investments in clean energy, crisis response, and international stability should rank near the top of the nation’s priorities. We should put intense pressure on Congress to sustain the department’s funding for these purposes.

Put ecosystems back to work: The UN Environment Programme estimates that 60 percent of the world’s major ecosystem goods and services have been degraded or used unsustainably for human development.20 Among those services is the ability of natural systems to prevent or reduce the impact of weather-related disasters.

River watersheds are an example. Many communities settled near rivers generations ago for very practical reasons. In southwest Wisconsin, where I spent some time in the 1970s, early settlers built their homes and businesses next to rivers for transportation, logging, and hydroelectric generation. When the rivers flooded in those days, they produced “ankle ticklers.”

That changed in the 1920s. Logging and farming deforested hillsides. Vegetation that once held raindrops where they fell was gone. Wetlands were destroyed to create cropland and urban development. Runoff carried silt down the hillsides and filled riverbeds so they held less water. Major floods began hitting the region’s riverside communities. And while America’s rivers and coastal areas were becoming more dangerous, more people built their homes and businesses there.

A critical component of resilience for these communities is to restore the ecosystems that mitigate natural disasters. Hillsides can be replanted; wetlands rebuilt. In some cases—for example, along the Napa River in California, the Cache River in Illinois, the Iowa River in Iowa, the Charles River in Massachusetts, and the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota—projects are under way to recapture the protective riparian ecosystem services that cost less, last longer, and require less maintenance than engineered structures.

Natural systems can be put to work in cities, too. Urban forests reduce the heat-island effect, where cities are often several degrees hotter than surrounding countryside because of dark asphalt surfaces and the lack of shade. Urban forests can save lives during heat waves while absorbing carbon, providing green space and wildlife habitat, and reducing air-conditioning costs.

Replacing concrete and asphalt with permeable surfaces reduces the runoff that overwhelms conventional storm sewers and contributes to flooding during severe storms. Natural drainage swales are less expensive than storm sewers and, like other permeable surfaces, allow the ground to soak up water and recharge aquifers.

Bring back Project Impact: During the Clinton administration, in 1997, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) launched a program called Project Impact. FEMA’s administrator at the time—James Lee Witt, generally regarded as the most effective leader of FEMA in memory—decided that the agency should help communities before as well as after disasters struck. FEMA provided seed money for communities and businesses to create “disaster-resilient communities.”

Project Impact provided funds to disaster-mitigation and -response partnerships involving local businesses, government leaders, civic organizations, individual citizens, and volunteer groups. By 1999, nearly 200 localities and more than 1,000 businesses had signed up.

Project Impact no longer exists, but some of its local partnerships have continued. I had the pleasure of visiting with one of them recently: Tulsa Partners in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa Partners is now a nonprofit organization sponsored by private contributions and supported by volunteers, with the aim of increasing the city’s resilience to disasters. More communities need to follow Tulsa’s example.

Create sensible codes and ordinances: Communities in hazard areas should pass and enforce building codes designed to make structures and infrastructure more resilient. One of the most sensible and controversial forms of local regulation is to evacuate and prevent further construction in hazard areas. Several neighborhoods and small communities in the United States have relocated from floodplains and rebuilt on higher ground, among them Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, and Valmeyer, Illinois. Floodplains can be put to use in ways that are not as vulnerable to damages, for instance, as green space and for recreation and campgrounds. That is what Soldiers Grove did when it moved to higher ground in the 1970s and 1980s. When back-to-back 500-year floods hit the village in 2007 and 2008, it sustained only minor damage while neighboring communities were destroyed.


Jason Mrachina
Urban forests, such as Central Park in New York City (shown here), reduce the heat-island effect, absorb carbon, provide green space and wildlife habitat, and reduce air-conditioning costs.

Relocation is not an option, of course, for communities located in huge or hard-to-define hazard zones, such as Tornado Alley and coastal areas vulnerable to hurricanes. But better building design and construction—for example, tie-downs and tornado “safe rooms”—can save lives.

Plan before the next disaster: The best time to make long-term plans for community resilience is before a disaster occurs. Too many communities know they are in hazard areas but procrastinate on steps to reduce risk and to plan for post-disaster recovery.

Pre-disaster plans, built with community involvement and consensus, can establish ordinances that go into effect post-disaster, including energy efficiency and renewable energy standards for new buildings and no-build restrictions in hazard zones. New infrastructure projects should be built with resilience in mind. For example, transit systems and roads should be designed so that first responders can access all parts of a community during extreme weather events. Municipal wells should be spared from contamination by locating them away from areas vulnerable to flooding and storm surges.

Excellent tools for engaging citizens in pre-disaster planning are available from organizations such as PlaceMatters (

Form resilience partnerships with federal neighbors: In October 2009, President Obama directed federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum consumption, cut waste, save water, and expand their use of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The directive applies to the government’s 8,300 buildings, its fleet of more than 200,000 vehicles, and the practices of nearly two million federal employees around the United States.

The U.S. military has set aggressive sustainability goals for its nearly 530,000 structures. The Army has selected 20 bases to demonstrate zero-energy, zero-water, and/or zero-waste goals by 2020, including locations in Maryland, California, New York, Oregon, Kansas, Washington, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Colorado, and Texas. The Navy says that 50 percent of its installations will achieve net-zero resource consumption by 2020.21

An important element of President Obama’s executive order is his directive that federal agencies “strengthen the vitality and livability of the communities in which Federal facilities are located.”22 That simple mandate establishes the foundation for partnerships between military and civilian government installations and the communities around them. In most communities, everyone—civilian, military, and government employee—breathes the same air, drinks the same water, relies on the same energy resources, and depends on the same transportation systems. It makes sense to collaborate on greater sustainability.

Another form of collaborative resilience is watershed and coastal compacts between communities. The hydraulics of rivers and coastlines are such that one community’s actions often affect its neighbors, for better or worse. For example, channelizing a river will move water more quickly through a community, but it also moves water more quickly into the next town downstream. Attempts to control erosion for one coastal neighborhood can cause erosion in others. In an intercommunity or bioregional compact, each locality would pledge not only to do no harm to others, but also to undertake measures that improve the security of all neighboring communities.

Put distributed energy to work: As Amory and Hunter Lovins have warned for years, centralized energy plants and their transmission systems are “brittle power,” vulnerable not only to terrorism and vandalism but also to weather-related disruptions that often deprive millions of families of electricity for extended periods.23 Rooftop solar systems, municipal-scale wind generation, geo-exchange systems to heat and cool buildings, combined heat and power systems—all are far more resilient. They are especially valuable for keeping hospitals, schools, water-treatment facilities, and other critical functions operating during power outages. As a bonus, they reduce carbon emissions and keep more energy dollars within communities to circulate locally and provide an economic boost.

Transpartisan Security

In May 2011, a poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications found solid bipartisan support in grassroots America for action to improve community security and quality of life.

Asked if they believe protecting the environment is good for the economy, 76 percent of Republicans answered yes, along with 74 percent of Independents and 94 percent of Democrats. In numbers approaching or exceeding 80 percent, respondents said that it is important to protect public health, water supplies, agriculture, wildlife, and forests.

“Very large majorities (75%+) across the country suggest that these protection (adaptation) measures are not (yet) politically polarized in the way that many mitigation policies have become” in Washington, DC, according to Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project.24

This and other recent polls suggest that political gridlock on dealing with the most serious threats of our time need not discourage local action. In fact, gridlock in Washington, DC, makes it all the more important that communities improve their own security with self-starting efforts to implement full-spectrum sustainability—an approach that builds local resilience, genuine prosperity, and quality of life while aligning local with national security.

The key lessons from the perfect storm of climate change, broken budgets, and political gridlock in Washington, DC, are these:

  • Look for nonstructural ecosystem-based strategies to make your community more secure from the impacts of climate change, the uncertainties of imported energy, and other risks.
  • Do not follow Washington, DC’s example by wasting time and goodwill arguing about whether climate change or the energy crisis are real. Instead, regard these as risks that must be mitigated, in the same way we insure ourselves against liability, or automobile accidents, or home fires, however unlikely we may think they are.
  • Do not wait for federal help. Even if it were available, federal funding typically involves a demoralizing amount of red tape and puts your community’s security outside of local control.
  • Regard national security as a personal obligation and an act of citizenship. Security is not a spectator sport.

Some of the most important architects of national security today are people like Wes Jackson, defending the health of our soils; David Orr, encouraging us to “see the world in all of its social, economic and ecological complexity as one interactive system”;25 and futurist Willis Harman, postulating that self-realization and ecological thinking are necessary for global security.

These are not new thoughts; they just have been largely ignored until now in the places where more traditional security policies are made. After serving in South Vietnam, then living and working in a flood-prone community that felt risk with every rainfall until it moved to higher ground, I wrote about redefining security 30 years ago:

We can see the dim outlines of a new world order much different from the old. From this new order, we can construct a “defense plan” that allows each of us to be not a terrified bystander to the drama of international affairs, but a direct participant in the healing of the planet, contributing to world security daily in our homes and workplaces.… It is within our means to make national policy in which every can recycled, every BTU of energy conserved, every solar collector installed and every drop of water preserved moves us toward global security and healing. That is where our search must lead us: to new understandings and social policies that empower each of us as a peacemaker and a healer, building a civilization worthy of our potential as human beings.26


Bill Becker

William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. PCAP has created a comprehensive plan for the Obama administration to shape U.S. energy and climate policy. Becker also...

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