We Need to Discuss Managed Retreat From the Coastline While It’s Still Manageable

Here’s a thought. Let’s relocate communities vulnerable to sea level rise and hurricanes away from the coast! I understand that this may not be the most popular of ideas, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start the conversation. Especially given that retreat is inevitable.

At an absolute minimum, we know that the ocean will be 3 feet higher by the end of the century. This rise will make almost all of the barrier islands of the world uninhabitable, result in inundation of a major portion of the world’s deltas and make low-lying coastal zones like south Florida increasingly challenging to inhabit.

This is evidenced by the adrenaline-filled 2017 Atlantic hurricane season and subsequent record-breaking flooding experienced in Houston. Flooding will get even worse in coastal areas as the regular pattern of high tides and king tides is pushed to record heights, and as the groundwater levels rise ever higher. Such flooding, which follows the strongest pull of the moon, is the “nuisance flooding” that has made more and more frequent headlines in the news. Sources of flooding — such as those caused by storm surges, coastal erosion or extreme high-tide events — are often confused with one another. Except for erosion, those other types of flooding are temporary, making it possible to rebuild and recover. Sea level rise is different in that it is essentially permanent from a human’s perspective: It will not recede for at least a thousand years.

Relocation advocates call for divesting in coastal infrastructure, and encourage residents to abandon coastal locations as quickly as is feasible. This is both economically irrational and unlikely to occur. Even the most pessimistic projections about sea level rise provide us with many years until the great majority of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts become uninhabitable. It would be economically wasteful and socially disruptive to abandon the high levels of physical and social capital that exist in these coastal areas in the short run.

The opposite response is to commit to protecting communities in their current locations, and to maintain transportation and other key infrastructure regardless of what happens in the future. This is both an unrealistic and a dangerous strategy because it risks using vast resources and encouraging unsafe choices when we know that eventually sea level rise and severe storms will overtake even the most innovative engineered environments, like in the Netherlands.

Adapting to climate change impacts like sea level rise can follow a managed retreat process that connects the two extremes described above. These types of programs would be most humane and fiscally wise, despite potentially being politically unpopular. People are already retreating from the shore, household by household, with little public aid or attention. Many of them are poor or are members of ethnic minority groups, as in the Mekong Delta, Bangladesh, and rural areas of Alaska and Louisiana.

This type of response is not uncommon following dramatic climate events like the ones we have witnessed in recent weeks and months. These events significantly alter the cost-benefit calculation for property owners — the costs of the status quo become discontinuously larger because of the costs of rebuilding and repair, while the benefits of remaining in place stay the same or diminish as people reassess their tolerance for risk.

After the 2017 hurricane season and the subsequent hundreds of billions in relief and recovery costs, managed retreat is sure to drum up further support. It is time to collectively raise our voices in support of programs for managed retreat from the coastlines — prioritizing communities most at risk. These communities must simultaneously demand that their representatives take congressional leadership in addressing the impending risks of coastal living that will first and foremost impact their livelihoods. Representatives from the most vulnerable coastal communities need to act while the process is still manageable.

The time for forced retreat will come faster than we think. Starting the discussion, identifying key leadership and obtaining broader support for managed retreat must start now.

Dr. Sweta Chakraborty is associate director of the Institute on Science for Global Policy in Washington.

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