The Case for Considering Managed Retreat in the Face of Sea Level Rise

The challenge of how to adapt to sea level rise is especially difficult, given the differences across urban areas in how sea level rise will affect them and the uncertain predictions of how much sea level rise will occur, and when, but it's an important issue to plan for. As both the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report, released in October, and the United States government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November, have reminded the world, climate change is actively changing our planet, it is caused by humans, and it will get worse. I recently read the book The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell. It is a haunting story about the impacts of sea level rise and a society steadfastly focused on ignoring it, but despite that uplifting synopsis I encourage everyone to read it.

Towards the end of the book, Goodell discusses the idea of moving communities out of areas that are at high risk for sea level rise or flooding from climate change. There are a number of places within the United States alone that have already experienced repeated hardship from climate change, showing the need to discuss innovative and even controversial policy solutions. Many people’s identity is tied strongly to their location and land, so this is an inherently emotional and personal conversation. As the Mayor of a coastal New Jersey town told Jeff Goodell, if citizens of the town were told that they couldn’t live there anymore (due to a rising sea level) it would be “an economic and emotional catastrophe (Pg 276).” Unfortunately, we are headed toward a future where people will be pushed out of their homes and that future is coming whether we discuss and plan for it or not.

Goodell is not the first person to consider incentivizing people to leave places vulnerable to sea level rise. In a 2014 paper in Climatic Change, Carolyn Kousky argued that artificial defenses against sea-level rise aren’t a viable option in some areas of the United States, and those areas should instead consider “managed retreat.” Managed retreat is defined by Laura Tam in the November 2009 issue of The Urbanist as a “strategy that safely removes settlement from encroaching shorelines, allowing the water to advance unimpeded.” Managed retreat is often seen as a last resort, only to be used if artificial defenses like coastal armoring or barriers are too costly or ineffective. Those costly artificial defenses will be most worthwhile in urban areas that either have large financial value or historical value that will be worth protecting, while managed retreat should be considered for more rural areas. I think it is worthwhile to look further into the idea that managed retreat is a policy that the United States government should pursue at a national, state, or local level.

The benefits of managed retreat are numerous. The first is that moving people sooner rather than later will save all levels of government money in the long run from disaster relief and rebuilding. The federal government spent over $300 billion on natural disasters in 2017, with sixteen events that caused over one billion in losses alone. A New York Times article analyzing disaster funding and patterns of natural disasters criticized this spending, saying that the disaster relief programs and subsidized flood insurance from the federal government encourage too much development in these vulnerable regions, which both wastes taxpayer dollars and puts lives in danger. A related benefit is that managed retreat is better for citizens both economically and emotionally. A March 2016 study published in Nature suggested that a six-foot rise in sea levels by 2100 could lead to 13.1 million Americans along the coast losing their homes, highlighting just how many people are at risk. The third benefit is that government-funded managed retreat is likely to be more equitable than leaving citizens to their own devices. An in-depth study by Grist found that poverty rates increased by one percentage point in areas hit by super-severe disasters and concluded that wealthier people, who have the resources to finance a move and are also more likely to have higher skills to make finding a new job easier, are leaving disaster prone areas and leaving low-income residents behind. This trend, if it continues, could leave areas vulnerable to disaster to becoming depressed economically and in need of even more federal funding.

The main downsides to pursuing a policy of managed retreat are the scale of the program, the negative optics, and the challenge of finding a politician willing to be the spokesperson for the policy. An additional challenging aspect to the plan would be how to deal with the inevitable hold-outs, or the people who simply cannot be incentivized with money to leave their homes. A successful managed retreat policy would likely include at least partial transformation of the built environment to a more natural coastal environment, and hold-outs would make that difficult.

It is worthwhile to think more about this policy and research its feasibility because of the reality of climate change. In 2017, the global mean sea level was three inches above the 1993 average, making it the highest annual average in the satellite record, which started in 1993. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the rising sea level is mostly from a combination of meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets and the thermal expansion seawater experiences as it warms. The IPCC found that in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C and limit the factors that cause sea level rise, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions must decline by forty-five percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Given the current global political climate and the difficulty the global community has faced in reducing carbon dioxide emissions it seems wise to start focusing on adaptation plans in addition to mitigation plans.

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