Conference Raises Tough Questions About Retreat from Rising Seas

July 17, 2019

By Sarah Fecht

photo from managed retreat panel

Photo from a panel at the Managed Retreat conference. The map on the presentation shows land loss in Louisiana in red. Photo: Sarah Fecht/Earth Institute

As the global thermostat climbs and polar ice melts, the oceans are swelling and swallowing up coastlines. By some calculations, rising seas could displace 13 million Americans by 2100. Nearly every state in the U.S. will be affected by people migrating in and out.

During three days in June, the Managed Retreat conference (organized by the Earth Institute at Columbia University) brought together scientists, politicians, community members, and lawyers to discuss what it means for people, infrastructure, and ecosystems as risings seas push back coastlines around the world. In panels — many packed to overflowing — experts of all kinds voiced their concerns and raised important questions about what to do and how to minimize the damages.

Many of the questions were technical. When should a coastal community move? Where should they go? Who pays for relocation or adaptation in place? How do you get people out of harm’s way without an economic collapse?

Then there were the bigger questions — like how do you make sure that coastal retreat doesn’t splinter communities and exacerbate inequalities?

“A lot of the grand questions center around the societal solutions,” said Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory climatologist Radley Horton, who helped to organize the conference. “The climate science is almost the easy part.”

What’s Fair?

Coastal retreat is inherently unequal. Many of the communities and nations that will be underwater in the next few decades aren’t responsible for the bulk of the emissions that are causing ice to melt and seas to rise — like the small island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific, or the native Alaskan communities that Robin Bronen from the Alaska Institute for Justice works with. During a session on Environmental Justice and Equity, Bronen opened her talk by saying, “I hope that, when you leave this room today, that you think about your greenhouse gas emissions that are causing these people to lose the places that they love and call home.”

Retreat from sea level rise should be fair and just, but what does that really mean? A.R. Siders from Harvard University raised a number of questions that show how thorny an issue this is. Who should get help relocating — every community that wants to relocate, or just some? In the past, white communities have disproportionately received buyouts. On the converse, if only African American communities were getting bought out and relocating, wouldn’t that also raise some concerns? Who should make these decisions? Siders asked the audience. Individual homeowners? Communities? Federal taxpayers? “Should you get a say? After all, you’re paying for the consequences of them moving, and you’re paying for the consequences of them not moving.”

In places like Manila in the Philippines and Lagos in Nigeria, Jola Ajibade from Portland State University noted that governments are moving urban poor out of coastal areas in the name of sea level rise, only to have developers come in and propose elite development projects along the same coastlines. So while the poor are being retreated, the rich advance. Similarly, Earth Institute postdoctoral researcher Allison Bridges has found that Hurricane Sandy may have exacerbated gentrification in some of the hardest-hit areas of New York City.

The issue of managed retreat becomes even more contentious with indigenous populations, who already bear the legacy of forced relocation. Their remaining lands and waters are being destroyed by industry and development, in many cases, and now climate change poses additional challenges.

Rosina Philippe, a member of the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha tribe in Grand Bayou, Louisiana, said that her tribe is trying to stop the losses, replace some of what they’ve lost over time, and put measures in place that will allow them to continue their way of life. They don’t want to relocate.

“To relocate is not as simple as picking up and moving from one house to another house, or one area to another area,” said Philippe. “You’re talking about centuries of lifeways and that’s not easily replicable. So unless people who are making the move have a say in how and where and when — if outside entities are in control — then that’s just another form of injustice and another form of abuse, and frankly we’ve had enough of it.”

Forward Thinking

While some communities are attempting to adapt in place with elevated buildings and seawalls to divert water, relocation appears inevitable for many. For that, panelists had helpful suggestions for how to move forward in the most equitable way possible.

First and foremost was the need to change the relationship between academic “experts” and the people who live in these communities, who are experts in their own right but often not treated as such.

“You can’t just come in and say, ‘You are at risk and need to move,’” said Bronen. Instead, she suggested asking the community members what they’re concerned about, getting them tools to gather the information they need, and working with the community to define the thresholds where they no longer feel safe and can start the relocation process.

The process needs to be led by the community, agreed Reverend Tyronne Edwards, who helped lead the recovery of Phoenix, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

Panelists also pointed out that it’s not enough to just move people out of the way of rising waters; for relocation to be successful, people will need jobs, and they’ll need to be able to maintain their community and kinship ties and quality of life. Native American groups also have a right to maintain their lifeways, including their food gathering traditions.

While the process of retreating from the coasts will be painful, conference attendees pointed out that — if it’s done right — it could offer an opportunity to correct some of the inequalities that have been built into society.

Although the conference generated more questions than answers, attendees agreed that it was helpful to hear from so many diverse perspectives, to start discussing the complexities and formulating a path forward.

“It’s better to have this conversation proactively before people are exposed and potentially losing their lives in these extreme events, and before we see more investment and more damages in these vulnerable areas,” said Horton. “It’s high time for this conversation. But there aren’t any easy solutions.”