Skip to main content

Building Greater Resilience for U.S. National Security

Date & Time

Jun. 23, 2020
1:00pm – 2:30pm ET


This year, three pandemics have shaken the fabric of our society, said Les Williams, Co-Founder and Chief Revenue Officer at Risk Cooperative at a recent event co-hosted by the Wilson Center and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment on building greater resilience for U.S national security. The spread of COVID-19 highlighted the vulnerabilities in our healthcare system. The murder of George Floyd became the tipping point in communicating the risk that Black Americans have been facing for more than 400 years. And a number of natural disasters exposed society’s vulnerability to climate change.

Each of these had substantial economic impacts with acute and chronic implications. COVID-19 slashed jobs and led more than 47 million Americans to file for unemployment. Furthermore, many essential workers who continue to work despite the pandemic tend to be people of color, which has led to a disproportionate amount of risk and exposure to the virus, and thus intensified socioeconomic racial disparities. Recent natural disasters have also had similar effects, said Williams. For example, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a predominately black neighborhood. More generally, throughout the United States, Black Americans tend to be located within floodplains, along contaminated sites, and near industrial pollution, contributing to additional risks and potential hardships.

Towards a More Resilient Nation

COVID-19 showed what can happen when the United States is under-prepared for a pandemic, said former Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.). COVID-19 has taught us many hard and expensive lessons that will help us prepare for future crises, such as climate change. A nation that’s not prepared for climate change will result in lost lives, jobs, and homes, particularly for coastal communities that face coastal flooding and sea level rise.

To prevent such losses, Rep. Curbelo said the United States needs to take the following actions:  

  • Conduct an accurate nationwide risk assessment to understand the magnitude of the threat.
  • Make realistic plans to adapt to and mitigate climate change impacts.
  • Engage in bipartisan negotiations to pass actionable climate change legislation.

We do not have a true risk assessment in this country, said Rep. Curbelo, calling FEMA flood maps dishonest, incomplete, and inaccurate at best. Many homes in South Florida are excluded from flood plains for political reasons. The maps and the process which communicates the risks associated with flooding is highly politicized. The risk maps often reflect the politics of property developers in flood plains, pressures to keep property values high, and fears of the overwhelming cost of adapting at-risk homes to rising seas and flooding, more than the actual risk. “So we need to come together,” said Rep. Curbelo, “and say, ‘Let’s get a real idea of what the problem is.’”

Military Readiness is Community Resilience

Climate change has already affected military readiness over the past three years by causing more than $10 billion dollars of damage to military installations, said Alice Hill, Senior Fellow for Climate Change Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. In March 2019, the Missouri River breached levies and flooded Offutt Air Force Base. In 2018, Hurricane Michael swept through Tyndall Air Force Base. That same year, Hurricane Florence pummeled Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. In addition to the damage to these military bases, the communities that support these bases were also heavily affected. Military installations rely on neighboring communities for day-to-day operations and vice-versa. Climate risk perspectives must include human security, Hill said. And the military needs to look beyond its gates to ensure the communities that support military operations remain resilient.

Climate Change and Risk Perception

It is striking how our experience with COVID-19 brings up issues that relate to the context of a changing climate, said Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Early action makes a big difference, he said, comparing it with an example of the consequences of underpreparation. At the time of the meeting, the United States had more than 120,000 deaths due to COVID-19, while Taiwan, less than 100 miles from China, had a total of 7 deaths. This stark contrast speaks to the effectiveness of preparation, listening to the science on the best ways to get ahead of the curve, and early and decisive action.

Climate change poses additional challenges. For one, climate has long been thought of as a slow-moving and difficult-to-detect set of phenomena. But that assumption has shifted recently; instead of thinking of climate change as a distant challenge, we are now seeing and experiencing its impacts daily, said Field. To continue our shift in thinking, we need to transition to recognizing that climate change is here now, he said.

How people think about climate change risk matters, said Field. When the federal government downplays the risks or makes people question the science, said Field, it makes it really hard to align resources in the kinds of smart ways Rep. Curbelo spoke about. Governments, companies, and nonprofits need to move the discourse in the same direction, helping people realize that climate change risk presents both serious challenges and real opportunities. Going forward, it’s important to not only decrease the risks of bad things happening, but also making the smart investments that can make lives better in the short term, said Field. Especially when we talk about building resilience, he said, we’re talking about building vibrant economies today and safe economies for tomorrow.    

A Seat at the Table

One of the challenges of emergency management is to include communities. Typically, those left out are the most vulnerable populations and those who have less of a voice, said Hill. One example of successfully including the community comes from Louisiana’s LA Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (SAFE). Through the LA SAFE program, 71 communities and six parishes were included in discussions about the risks from coastal flooding and the solutions available. Efforts like this are resource-intensive, but the investments are needed to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table. Without community engagement and inclusion, future plans for pandemics and climate change will continue to fall short, leaving behind the most vulnerable in our society, and putting our country at risk.

Written by Johnny Quispe, edited by Sandra Yin. 

Continue the conversation on Twitter at @NewSecurityBeat. You can find more coverage of these issues on our blog,

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.