Considering 'Managed Retreat' When does it make sense to give up adapting to climate change and simply retreat? A first-of-its-kind conference this past week explored the difficult and contentious issues around that concept.

Considering 'Managed Retreat'

Considering 'Managed Retreat'

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When does it make sense to give up adapting to climate change and simply retreat? A first-of-its-kind conference this past week explored the difficult and contentious issues around that concept.


As it turns out, there's a phrase for what happened to Fran O'Connor, a phrase that's being used more and more as climate change makes the East Coast of the U.S. increasingly unstable. It's called managed retreat.

And this week in New York, there was a first-of-its-kind conference on this subject that tackled this question, when does it make sense to retreat? NPR's Nathan Rott is at the conference at Columbia University, and he joins us now on the line.

Hi there.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So explain that phrase to us - managed retreat. What does it mean?

ROTT: So it's a technical term, a political term. And it is essentially like a formal acknowledgement that there are places in the U.S. and around the world - not just the East Coast, I should say - that are going to be, if they aren't already, at such huge levels of risk from climate change that it just won't make sense for those places to remain.

And that can be, you know, communities at risk of increased wildfire heat. But primarily, what we're talking about at this conference - it's focused on the impacts on coastal zones - cities by the sea, oceanside towns that are going to be inundated or see more flooding as sea levels rise.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've been reporting on coastal communities dealing with climate change all year, and we've seen the ways that places are trying to defend themselves from rising seas - seawalls or artificial reefs. Are you saying those won't work?

ROTT: So this is one of the big challenges that I've been hearing about at this conference - that it is hard to speak in these sort of broad universal truths, you know, that this will work or this won't because there's still so much uncertainty about what the impacts might be from climate change in some places or how severe they'll be.

One of the presenters here - her name is A.R. Siders. She's been studying climate adaptation for a long time. She's currently at Harvard University. And she says that there's really no one-size-fits-all solution.

A R SIDERS: What is the right answer in Louisiana is going to be different from the right answer in Alaska or Boston or New York or Miami or California. It's going to change. So instead of saying, this is the thing you need to do, I find it a lot more useful to say, these are the questions you should consider while making the choice that's right for your context.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But many people won't want to leave their homes or the places that they grew up, right?

ROTT: No. I mean, nor does a city manager, who gets a huge percent of their budget from property taxes, want to see any of that go away. And that's why managed retreat, to this point, has largely been looked at as sort of an option of last resort. But we should say there are communities, you know, namely native communities on Alaska's coast, who have wanted to be relocated for years, but the funding just hasn't been there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's talk about that funding. If we're going to buy out homeowners, for example, or entire towns, where does that money come from?

ROTT: You don't have a couple of trillion laying around?


ROTT: (Laughter) I mean, that's one of the questions that people here are talking about. There is not a source currently. And the sum of money we're talking about here is just astronomical. I mean, even if that money existed, even if we had it, there's questions like, who should get bought out?

Is it the person who has a second home in Malibu that costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix after a mudslide or a fire, because you could certainly make an economic argument that it would be good for the general public for that person to be bought out? Or should it be the person in a lower-income area - you know, New Orleans Ninth Ward - who might not have the ability to move themselves? There are just so many questions that this topic raises.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So are there any good things, any optimism that you're hearing from people there, because this is a difficult subject?

ROTT: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of excitement that the conversation is happening. I've heard more than one person say that it's about time we start tackling this. But I also wanted to steal a quote that one of the presenters stole from Oliver Smith, a Marine Corps general who served in World War II and the Korean War, where, in a battle, he said - he famously said, you know, we're not retreating; we're just advancing in a different direction.

And, look; climate change is going to make us have to change direction. And there's a lot of hope at this conference that as we rebuild communities, as we rethink them, there's an opportunity to do that in a way that doesn't have some of the inequalities and segregation that our current systems have.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's Nathan Rott, thank you very much.

ROTT: Thank you, Lulu.


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