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Retreat

Our last blog posting mused about the Climate Change Challenge and highlighted the myriad infrastructure-related obstacles we’ll need to overcome in the climate-altered world we are already confronting. We paraphrase and summarize our conclusions at the end of that blog as:


…The upshot is that throughout much of the world, it is already too late to stop many of the looming impacts of climate change. Those impacts are upon us. We must still try to prevent or delay the worst of the potential effects, but on a host of levels change is now underway. Planning for climate-change induced environmental impacts, which will be both broad and varied -- via both infrastructure mitigation and adaptation -- is therefore key to alleviating and reducing future damage and suffering across the globe. The world is finally starting to plan for and implement adaptations and hardening infrastructure to confront this unfolding economic, civilization and human crisis across our countries, economies and infrastructure, but much more action is needed…

The day after we published that particular Musing, Hurricane Laura slammed into the US Gulf Coast, followed by Tropical Storm Marco. A headline in the August 26, 2020 New York Times read: “US Flood Strategy Shifts to ‘Unavoidable’ Relocation of Entire Neighborhoods”. That article noted that Laura and Marco were the eighth and ninth major storms to strike Texas and Louisiana since 2017 alone, “helping to drive a major federal change in how the nation handles floods.” That new approach involves large-scale relocation of housing and other infrastructure away from vulnerable, flood-prone areas. This ‘managed retreat’ as it’s now being called has been discussed and sporadically implemented over the last almost-30 years, most notably by James Lee Witt as Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) Administrator under President Clinton, who launched a voluntary buyout relocation program for flood-prone communities along the Mississippi River in the 1990s. More recently, New Jersey has “bought and torn down some 700—flood-prone homes around the state”, according to the NYTimes reporting, and has made offers on hundreds more. But that barely scratches the surface of what is an incredible pool of vulnerable communities, housing and infrastructure.


Underwater”, a June 2018 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), concluded that as many as 311,000 home along the US coasts could be underwater within the next 30 years, impacting some 165 - 180 communities. Those homes, with a collective market value of about $117.5 billion today “are at risk of chronic inundation” by 2045, according to the report. About 14,000 commercial properties with a current assessed value of $18.5 billion are also at risk during that time-frame. By the end of the century, 2.4-million homes worth $1-trillion are at risk. This UCS forecast assumes a “high sea level rise” scenario of 2-feet by 2045 and 6.5 feet by 2100, forecasts that are becoming increasingly likely. But even in the “intermediate scenarios” with just one foot of sea rise by 2035, 140,000 homes are at risk of chronic inundation by 2035 and 1.2-million by 2100. The majority of these vulnerable homes are in New York, New Jersey, Miami, along the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast cities of Texas and Louisiana, as well as in California -- most notably San Diego and Los Angeles. None of these estimates include damage to infrastructure such as power plants, roads, airports, bridges, ports, public buildings or military bases. And of course, global estimates of these types of damage across all infrastructure sectors are astronomical.


Cities in these storm prone areas are focusing on the need for infrastructure protection – at least in the immediate aftermath of each storm. In the wake of Hurricane Laura, Texas leaders are again calling for construction of the Ike Dike to extend the Galveston seawall and create a series of levees plus gates to close off Galveston from the storm surge. But with a price tag (according to at least one cost estimate) of about $30-billion, the funding challenges for that (and other) flood prevention systems are very significant. Moreover, increasing skepticism about the viability of these “built solutions” is likely warranted, given the range of highly uncertain future conditions before us – including the rate of glacial ice melt and sea level rise, the impact of more intense storm rainfall, the increases we see in both storm frequency and intensity, and increased ocean surge impacts. Given all that uncertainty, committing to these multi-billion dollar solutions is risky, even assuming the funding is available, because they may simply be inadequate or fail. That is what has likely happened in Venice with the 6-billion euro MOSE barrage and may be the outcome of the $40-billion Great Garuda barrier in Jakarta which is crumbling in places, does not deal with the critical land-subsidence issue and may not be high enough to deal effectively with sea level rise in coming decades. In fact, for a variety of reasons including chronic flooding, Indonesian President Jako Widodo announced last year that the capital would move to Borneo from Jakarta/Java.


All this gets back to the increasing discussion of what James Lee Witt called “relocation” 30 years ago but we are now calling “managed retreat”. This strategy is now being explicitly put into action via a new $500-million FEMA program, as well as by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under their $16-million program, and by individual states as well. According the NYTimes reporting, this follows an Army Corp of Engineers decision that local officials must “agree to force people out of their homes or forfeit federal money for flood protection programs.” And while there has been resistance to relocation in the past, that resistance is diminishing as individuals have grown weary of continual flooding and the reality sinks in that we face an increasingly vulnerable future. Moreover, this reality has translated into not just FEMA planning, but the calculations of mortgage lenders and insurance companies unwilling to service increasingly vulnerable properties. So to the list of infrastructure mitigations that will loom large in the future, we should be well aware that the option of managed retreat is not only likely, but already happening


These retreats come with great costs to the individuals, communities and countries affected, considering the costs of damage, relocation and the many ancillary impacts such as loss of vital infrastructure, transportation hubs, commercial impacts and the like. Careful thought and deep analysis is necessary across so many dimensions to adequately anticipate, plan, prioritize, program and then implement these retreats.

There must be some sort of prioritization set up and screening to determine what we want to try to save or move, what all the consequences will be -- even for national security, what the likely cost of a decision will be, and what probability any course of action has for success given the rapidly evolving nature of climate science data. How will it all be funded? Where will the people and industry be relocated? How will they be compensated or subsidized or made whole if at all? What are the global migration implications when people might be displaced from entire countries? What are the legal implications and what is the potential impact on insurers and their ability to pay out claims, and so on?


Who will be in charge of understanding and implementing all of this? And not least, how will it all be funded and by whom? In the United States, shouldn’t this be coordinated on a national basis some way? If so, how and by whom? When one looks at today’s forerunner of such a global disaster – the Covid-19 pandemic and its impacts -- given what is now going on, it is hard to be optimistic. And based on both the pandemic response and the decades-long international inaction on addressing the global climate crisis until it has reached this emergency state, one unfortunately can only anticipate the worst.


Unless this looming crisis is recognized and urgently addressed on a global, national and local level, this “managed retreat” will eventually evolve into total chaos of unimaginable proportions with disastrous consequences. This needs to be a global priority for everyone. But starting with the United States, individuals in danger zones, their communities, their states and the federal government all have to be enmeshed in this issue immediately and at the very least starting to plan and prepare.


More Musings on this to come.

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