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How to advance by retreating: As climate change advances, it’s time to think about leaving the coasts

2019-09-12

Temperatures are rising, and so is the water. There is no shortage of reminders. Dorian unleashed massive flooding and a storm surge in the Bahamas that raised water levels 20 feet higher than normal, all but turning some kitchen windows into nautical portholes.

It’s time to plan for the encroachment of the sea — not only from storms that are increasing in frequency and severity due to climate disruption, but also from a wider-scale and potentially catastrophic chronic threat:

As the Earth warms, massive ice sheets are melting and our waterfronts will see at least six feet of sea level rise by century’s end. For many coastal communities, it won’t be about whether to leave, but how to ensure that our most vulnerable are not left behind.

“I would like us all to think of “retreat” as not just retreating from unsustainable places but unsustainable ways of life," Liz Koslov, assistant professor at UCLA offered recently at Columbia University’s Earth Institute conference, “At What Point Managed Retreat: Resilience Building in the Coastal Zone.”

A strong turnout of 390 policy makers, scientists and practitioners spoke to the concern that we are in the throes of cascading extreme weather events. Indeed, a month after this convening, a deadly heat wave shattered temperature records across Europe before moving north to the Arctic—swaths of which remain on fire—and on July 31st, 11 billion tons of Greenland’s ice melted in a single day.

"The Arctic should be front and center of our conversations around the climate crisis,” says Robin Bronen, executive director of Alaska Institute for Justice. “And I am heart-broken because I can barely articulate the level and rapidity of change that I am bearing witness to.”

To understand Bronen’s distress, consider that in March, temperatures in some Alaska locations hit a high of 40 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. It’s so bad that a new hazard has gained government recognition: “Usteq” — a form of catastrophic ground collapse.

The plume of devastation extends across the lower latitudes, from Coastal Florida, where developers remain incentivized to build in flood-prone zones, to Southern California — on track to lose up to two-thirds of its beaches by century’s end. As for New York City, 520 miles of coastline and 100 neighborhoods are on the front lines.

What does this mean for the individual homeowner?

Jesse Keenan of Harvard University speaks to the “evaporation of equity” (translation: losing everything you’ve ever worked for). He knows that when we have big floodwaters in the Mississippi and can’t move products up, we can’t get seeds planted for corn, and people will die of malnourishment in other parts of world. He knows, too that people trade on that information and profit off of climate-driven volatility.

The question of who gets left behind keeps Keenan up at night. The answer includes the elderly who want a reverse mortgage, or to downsize, many of whom are now unable to do so — even as large institutional funds that own commercial real estate are already exiting.

“Economic refugees,” Keenan calls them. “Those who are fully displaced, who have nowhere to go.”

When people are forced to move from a storm-ravaged home, or can’t afford flood insurance, or see their property value plummet when the markets finally reflect the reality of the risk: the tax base will leave.

Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists addresses this swamping of the real estate market, with its distinct scent of non-disclosure.

“There are all these folks who know that this risk is real and it’s coming,” she says. “It’s almost like everyone’s afraid of dropping that first domino because then everything starts to go.”

Her heart sinks at the prospect of people learning that their homes are in the bulls-eye without policies in place to help. Indeed, the United States has no comprehensive plan for retreating from the hazards of our rising seas.

It’s a lot to unpack. Each coastal community must look at solutions, whether shoreline hardening, elevation or returning one’s property back to wetlands to serve as buffer in the storms to come.

Koslov reflects that retreat is often framed as moral failure. But some Staten Islanders who participated in the buyout after Superstorm Sandy had another view.

“They spoke of retreat very differently — as a moral achievement, a sort of sacrifice for the greater good,” she says. They were giving their homes back to nature as a way to protect their communities and make their neighbors inland safer. “They felt that that was a very profound and meaningful act.”

The crisis is coming fast, but with it, opportunity to reimagine our shorelines — to connect with relationships forged, eyes cast to the future, cultures and histories in tow. So far, this is proving to be resiliency at its best.

Hetherman writes about the environment.