Climate change will increasingly require both homeowners and policymakers to accept the sobering reality that we must move away from our most vulnerable communities.

“But rather than seeing retreat as a failure, we must reconceptualize climate change—driven managed retreat for what it presents: a sensible, albeit difficult option that offers fresh opportunities.”

Introduction

During my 20 years in the U.S. military, any mention of the word “retreat” would initially be met with furrowed brows, heavy sighs, and consternation. After all, retreat conjures negative images of defeat and loss to the enemy. Similarly, climate change is an overpowering “enemy” force that threatens coastal communities.

Climate change will increasingly require both homeowners and policymakers to accept the sobering reality that we must move away from our most vulnerable communities. This will require difficult, heart-wrenching, climate adaptation decisions.

Retreat is an emotionally fraught choice, but often the best option. By one estimate, building sea walls for coastal communities will cost U.S. taxpayers in excess of $400 billion—we simply cannot “accommodate our way” out of climate change.

But rather than seeing retreat as a failure, we must reconceptualize climate change—driven managed retreat for what it presents: a sensible, albeit difficult option that offers fresh opportunities. It represents a mature evolution and acknowledgement of climate change’s true costs, risks, and threats (Siders 2019). But how do we “manage” managed retreat? And what are the legal barriers in doing so?

We are entering the climate–security century as climate change massively destabilizes the physical environment (Nevitt 2015). To meet this physical destabilization, existing laws, regulations, and policies—all designed for a more stable environment—are similarly ripe for destabilization. As we better understand climate change’s “super-wicked” effects, federal, state, and local governments must look with fresh eyes at the full menu of climate adaptation policies and regulatory tools at our disposal (Lazarus 2009) …

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