‘Managed retreat’ from coasts our best option to tackle climate crisis

23 Aug 2019

Image: © fotoart-wallraf/Stock.adobe.com

Mass migration from the coasts as a result of the climate crisis should not be viewed as defeat but as a means of adapting, researchers have argued.

Among the many ways the climate crisis is altering our planet, rising sea levels is expected to have one of the most dramatic and impactful affects on the lives of millions of people who live along coastlines. Now, three researchers writing in Science are advocating for a “managed retreat” from coastal areas, not as a sign of defeat in tackling the climate crisis but as a necessary, proactive step for the greater good.

“We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” said AR Siders from the University of Delaware, who co-wrote the piece along with colleagues Miyuki Hino (Stanford University) and Katharine J Mach (Stanford and University of Miami).

“We’re not winning or losing, we’re adjusting to changes in nature. Sea levels rise, storms surge into flood plains, so we need to move back.”

Highlighting the example of a typical emergency response to an environmental disaster, Siders said that evacuations are typically done inefficiently and haphazardly. Instead, the researchers argue for it being more strategic.

An economic argument

“Retreat is a tool that can help achieve societal goals like community revitalisation, equity and sustainability if it is used purposefully,” Siders said. “People sometimes see retreat as defeatist, but I see it as picking your battles.”

The researchers also argued that when disaster strikes, it is common for wealthier residents of an area to relocate, leaving poorer residents struggling to find the resources to move.

Hino said: “One major challenge with retreat is that we’re so focused on getting people out of harm’s way, we miss the chance to help them move to opportunity.”

Specifically addressing the climate crisis, the researchers said that while a managed retreat is a good idea, it may not be a step that’s necessary this year or even this decade.

Mach said: “The story of retreat as a climate response is just beginning. Retreat is compelling because it brings together so many aspects of how societies work, what individuals are trying to achieve and what it takes to ensure preparedness and resilience in a changing climate.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic