Scientists Urge Us to Manage a Careful Retreat From Climate Change
It is critical for human cultures to incorporate a strategic’managed retreat’ into their responses and adaptations to climate change, academics argue, and figuring out how is a dialogue that must begin now.
Managed retreat is the controlled removal of people and property from threats that, in the context of climate change, come in a variety of forms, including sea level rise, flooding, high heat, wildfire, and other disasters.
While the concept of retreat may be unpopular, experts say it is critical to reframe the discourse around what controlled retreat actually means in order to give ourselves the best opportunity of confronting climate change with a full range of feasible long-term options.
“Climate change is affecting people all over the world, and everyone is trying to figure out what to do about it,” says University of Delaware disaster researcher A.R. Siders.
“One potential strategy, moving away from hazards, could be very effective, but it often gets overlooked.”
Among the other adaptation activities – academically classified as resistance, accommodation, avoidance, and advance – retreat is frequently disparaged, researchers report. However, they emphasize, given the magnitude of the climate catastrophe, it is critical that we do not consider retreat as a sign of failure.
“Retreat has often been viewed as a failure to adapt or considered only when all other options are exhausted,” Siders and co-author Katharine Mach, a climate risk researcher at the University of Miami, say in their new study.
“But this conceptualization ignores lessons from numerous disciplines drawing on a long history of human movement and limits adaptation researchers and decision-makers in preparing for a broad range of futures.”
Siders and Mach evaluate the available scientific literature on controlled retreat and sketch forth a future roadmap for a successful, deliberate retreat from climate change.
Notably, they assert, future instances of planned retreat will be distinct from previous examples, which concentrated on localized, isolated, and smaller-scale calamities.
“For example, in the United States, voluntary home buyouts have helped ~45,000 families move out of flood-prone homes over the past 30 years,” the researchers write.
“This represents a tiny fraction of the millions at risk [now and in the future]and is fewer than the number of homes experiencing repeat flood damage and the number of new homes built in floodplains.”
In the future, managed retreat may become a critical component of various forms of climate change adaptation.
Along with abandoning places, managed retreat may entail establishing physical space for climate-resilient technology adaptations, such as floating villages or encircling cities with storm or fire barriers.
It is likely that many future manifestations of managed retreat will look nothing like the ones we have seen previously, which were largely in response to flooding. While flood risk and coastal flooding are unavoidable consequences of climate change, other threats – such as wildfires and their smoke – will necessitate the development of new types of retreats.
“Future retreat may also increasingly result from slower-onset trends, such as continuing subsidence, recurrent high-tide flooding, permafrost melt, groundwater salinization, or desertification,” the authors write.
“Proactive retreat, planned before slow-onset changes severely threaten lives, livelihoods, and other things people value, is likely to be more effective and to reduce the psychological, sociocultural, and implementation burdens of retreat.”
To anticipate and plan effectively for these difficulties, stakeholders will need to communicate across local, regional, national, and even international communities, the researchers say, involving citizens, several levels of government, and the commercial sector.
Simultaneously, managed retreat must incorporate new types of adaptation visions informed by architecture, environmental engineering, climate fiction, futurism, and security assessments – all of which have the potential to generate novel solutions to the problems we are currently experiencing.
“Adaptation visions have the potential to be bold, in pursuit of futures prepared for climate shocks that promote social justice, improve quality of life, and foster stronger relationships between peoples and between people and nature,” the researchers say.
“In many locations, a strategic, managed retreat may not be feasible. Nonetheless, despite (or perhaps because of) its difficulties, including it into adaptation discussions today increases the likelihood of long-term, sustainable well-being in the face of growing climate hazards.”
Science published the findings.