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Opinion | Is Your Town Threatened by Floods or Fires? Consider a ‘Managed Retreat.’

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After suffering back-to-back floods in 1993, the town of Valmeyer, Ill., did something unusual. Instead of risking yet another disaster, it used funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Illinois to move the entire town a few miles away to higher ground.

As the climate continues to change, more and more communities will contemplate taking actions like Valmeyer’s. Rather than merely build levees or weatherize homes, communities will purposefully move away from places threatened by floods, droughts, fires or high temperatures.

This strategy is known as managed retreat. It is often considered an extreme option to be pursued only when no other alternatives remain. People don’t want to move from their homes, especially when environmental conditions, even if worsening, have not yet made life unlivable.

But managed retreat should be considered more often and in more innovative forms. Most adaptations to climate change involve both upsides and downsides: A home on stilts may reduce flood risks but restrict access for a person with limited mobility; air conditioning may keep some people cool but lead to untenable energy bills for others. While conversations about managed retreat tend to focus on its downsides, it can offer significant benefits if it’s done intelligently and with the necessary resources, as we argue in a recent article in the journal Science.

It’s important to keep in mind that spontaneous, unplanned retreat is already taking place all over the world, as people make individual decisions to move away from threatened areas. The question is not whether we want retreat to happen. It’s whether we want it to happen in this ad hoc fashion, which can lead to neighborhoods in decline, homes abandoned and infrastructure degrading.

It is obvious to us that planned retreats are preferable. With deliberation and foresight, communities or governments can relocate homes, businesses, infrastructure or even entire cities in ways that keep communities safe, sustain jobs and economies and help advance the cause of social justice.

To date, managed retreat has been done in only a few limited ways, with governments typically buying out single homes or mandating resettlements of whole communities. But more innovation is possible, including a wider range of legal, financial, engineering and social strategies.

In some cases, managed retreat will entail wholesale change, relocating an entire community or perhaps building a floating village. But managed retreat can involve more targeted efforts — for example, moving part of a town to create more space for water pumps and retention ponds or turning some of a city’s roads into canals to accommodate rising sea levels. Another targeted strategy is to permit current residents to remain in their homes but prohibit newcomers from moving in so that the government can acquire properties after occupants move.

We are under no illusions about the challenges involved. Managed retreat can reduce threats from climate change, yet it poses risks of its own. It can disrupt the cultural heritage of established communities. It can perpetuate social and economic inequalities. And it can cause financial, professional and psychological disruption.

But these issues also present an opportunity, a chance not to salvage and maintain the status quo at all costs but to deliberately build a better future. Managed retreat could help change how funding is allocated between wealthy versus low-income communities, for example, or between urban hubs versus remote coastlines. Numerous enduring injustices have led to the settlement of marginalized communities in areas of increasing flood and storm hazards and left them without adequate protections. Addressing such persistent inequities should be a goal of all efforts at climate adaptation.

Managed retreat should no longer be a last-ditch effort to flee climate problems. It should be a thoughtfully deployed tool for addressing a wide range of human problems.

Katharine J. Mach (@katharine_mach) is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. A.R. Siders (@sidersadapts) is an assistant professor at the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

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