Retreating from the coasts, in concept or practice, is not popular. Why would people abandon their community, the thinking goes, unless no better alternatives remained? To emergency responders, retreat is a form of flood mitigation. To environmental advocates, it’s ecological restoration. To resilience planners, it’s adaptation to climate change. Everyone agrees, however, that retreat sounds like defeat. It means admitting that humans have lost and that the water has won. “American political institutions, even our national mythology, are ill-suited to the indeterminacy and elasticity of nature,” wrote journalist Cornelia Dean nearly two decades ago in her book Against the Tide. “It would almost be un-American to concede … that it is we who must adapt to the ocean, not the other way around.”
The U.S. has occasionally experimented with retreat on a tiny scale by offering voluntary buyouts to waterlogged families. The outcome is rarely promising. “Buyouts are extremely expensive, extremely disruptive, and many of the attempts have not gone well,” says Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They invoke fear among citizens in every political stratum, bringing to mind land grabs, racist resettlement projects, class warfare, and, depending on your ideology, either federal overreach or federal abandonment. Because they require coordination among politicians, homeowners, lawyers, engineers, banks, insurers and all levels of government, they are enormously complicated to execute, even poorly. At their worst, buyouts break up community support systems, entrench inequality and leave a checkerboard of blighted lots in their wake. At their best, they avoid these things and still displace people from their homes.
Yet anyone who has looked at a map that forecasts sea-level rise can see that in low-lying neighborhoods exposed to the tides, some amount of retreat is inevitable. Regardless of how much and how quickly humans cut greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already producing effects that cannot be reversed. Within a few decades, as saltwater begins to regularly block roads, kill wetlands, disrupt power supplies, bury popular beaches, undermine houses and turn common rainstorms into perilous floods, the most vulnerable pockets of coastal towns will become uninhabitable. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has warned, “today’s flood is tomorrow’s high tide.” [Continue reading…]