Climate Change Daily Government Policy

A Retreat From Climate Change

An unpopular but necessary reality

Hurricane season is a reminder of how communities, precariously perched on coastal land near sea level, are the first casualties of increased flooding. Sea levels rise, and coastal communities flood. Storm surge, battering rains, and incessant tidal flooding all take their toll. The Center for Climate Integrity estimates that by 2040 protecting larger cities (more than 25,000 residents) with seawalls will cost over $42 billion. If we include smaller cities, then the cost leaps to over $400 billion. Retreat or protect is the political question arising from these threats. Until recently, “retreat” has been a shunned word in the climate change battles. But the tides are turning on this reluctance to relocate, no pun intended.

What happens when the cost of protecting low lying neighborhoods grossly exceeds their collective property taxes? There are various temporary fixes, but the obvious solution of “managed retreat” is rarely discussed. Human psychology is geared towards resilience, not retreat. Homeowners respond best to messages affirming their property will be protected at all costs. The stark truth is, there is not enough money to continue defending all of the properties threatened by rising seas.

But positions are shifting regarding planned retreats from rising seas and increasingly intense storms. Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have recently announced programs aimed at buying out and relocating selected coastal properties. These changes come amid growing concerns about the costs of climate change. New Orleans was inundated when Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed the city levees. Then, Houston submerged below floodwaters when Harvey stalled along the coast, dumping ungodly amounts of rain on the city. The final combined cost of these storms was $300 billion.

Retreat or attack

City planners face a dilemma because both scientists and urban planners understand that mother nature ultimately wins out along the coast. While the protection of limited areas is possible, economic reality dictates that huge expenditures to protect small communities are not generally feasible.

An orderly, managed retreat is better than an unmanaged retreat, but the orderly solution is politically unpopular. No elected official wants to kick voters out of their homes or tell voters that they should relocate. No matter what the timeframe on a retreat strategy, some voters will lose out. Suppose the city declares that in 30 years, they will no longer support municipal services in a neighborhood. In that case, voters living in affected neighborhoods suffer an immediate and significant loss in property value. In the Vision 2100 plan for Norfolk, Virginia, a coastal city, the work retreat is only used once. That one reference states that the city won’t retreat.

But the federal government is less inclined to be sympathetic to local politics. The Army Corps of Engineers has issued ultimatums to some localities: Either force people from flood prone communities or forfeit federal funding needed to fight climate change and flooding in more concentrated urban settings, where money spent on protection makes sense.

Some states like New Jersey and California are already taking action. The government bought seven hundred homes in New Jersey, and the residents were required to relocate. Along the California coast, rising seas erode the land below coastal homes. The ocean doesn’t care if it is a multi-million-dollar Malibu home or a shack by the beach. These sea-side communities are slowly washing away. State and local authorities see the writing on the wall, and their economic analyses point towards eventual abandonment of some coastal communities. Understandably the homeowners affected are outraged and want taxpayers to continue supporting them in their losing battle.

Managed retreat or market decline

The bitter local politics around retreat place pressure on local governments to take another route. As opposed to talking about retreating, most cities’ preferred option involves letting “market forces” dictate the way forward. There is some logic in this approach since the loss of market appeal due to flooding will slowly discourage people from moving into certain neighborhoods. As property values fall, only those with no other options will move in, or the homes will be abandoned.

When the neighborhoods are devoid of influence and wealth, the city can abandon infrastructure maintenance without negatively impacting elected officials. The relocation of residents will still be required, but it is cheaper to relocate poor people than wealthy ones. So, the market option allows planners the luxury of avoiding normal long-term city planning in favor of kicking the can down the road — a poor solution at best.

Federal and State politics will prove to be less favorable for some local homeowners. Cost-benefit analyses will dictate where to protect and where to retreat, and federal agencies like FEMA and HUD hold the purse strings to make it happen. Money talks and State level governments will listen when Federal funding is in jeopardy. The idea of retreat seems un-American to many, but this sentiment will clash with an equally emotive topic; taxpayer subsidy of lost causes.


U.S. Flood Strategy Shifts to ‘Unavoidable’ Relocation of Entire Neighborhoods (By Christopher Flavelle; The New York Times)

Trump Administration Presses Cities to Evict Homeowners From Flood Zones (By Christopher Flavelle; The New York Times)

The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim (By Rosanna Xia; LA Times)

Climate Change Turns the Tide on Waterfront Living (By Jim Morrison; Washington Post)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.