climate change

Florida: A Discussion on Managed Retreat

You know, you guys should be really worried about climate change” Pete Townshend, guitarist of British rock band ‘The Who’ told an audience of thousands at a Who concert in Tampa, Florida, in 2019.

If I’d been in the crowd, I’d have bellowed, “NO SHIT!” right back to him. Not the most elevated language, to be sure, but it was a rock concert and you need to be concise when you’re yelling at a concert. It isn’t the time or place for lengthy or sophisticated arguments. Anyway, I wasn’t in Florida at the time of the concert and I’m not keen to visit a state that has saltwater bubbling up from manholes and drains on a regular basis, among other climate change issues including strengthening hurricanes. But yeah, while I appreciate any efforts to further conversations about climate change, Pete’s warning is a) quite obvious b) a day late and a dollar short.

Except that three years later, some publications and industries seem blindsided by the effects of climate change on Florida. Particularly when it comes to stronger, more frequent, and more devastating hurricanes. Aside from the very real devastation on people’s lives and livelihoods, the recent hurricanes in Florida are an example of the very real economic consequences of climate change. Real estate, construction, insurance, and tourism all can suffer from severe and increasingly powerful hurricanes that make seaside locations untenable, can result in a collapse of private insurance companies if the payouts skyrocket, and could ultimately cause a real estate market (and construction) collapse if insurance is unaffordable or unattainable as vulnerable areas become too dangerous to live in.

So, what do you do if a formerly prosperous, sought-after, and idealized location transforms into a very hazardous and unaffordable area for most people to live in? What do you do when climate change, mostly in the form of sea-level rise and stronger storms, transforms the homes of millions into an unsustainable environment?

The most practical answer that everyone hates is a ‘managed retreat‘. That is when communities and their leaders admit their location is no longer safe due to a changing climate, and they relocate inland or to a different area to ensure their safety. A managed retreat is essentially a community-level rebuff of the sunk cost fallacy. Instead of trying to adapt or finding means to continue living in an increasingly dangerous area, you cut your losses, regroup elsewhere, and develop a new community in an area where the climate hazards threatening you are no longer an issue. Emotionally devastating, as you are saying goodbye to your home, but by far the most effective and safest option for surviving increasingly dire climate risks. As I said, everyone hates this idea.

Which means people look to other solutions with a host of other problems. Coastal communities are experimenting with ‘beach renourishment‘ where you build artificial sand dunes to buff up beaches, preventing seawater from reaching inland during storm surges as sea-levels rise. This can keep an area safe (to an extent) but has a twofold problem of a) needing to constantly be topped up, which is expensive, and b) does not actually solve any climate problems as much as it delays facing them. And you ultimately need to keep adding more and more to the dunes to keep them matching the increasing storm strength and sea-level. Other options in the forms of levees, pump systems, and drainage canals are better options, where possible, but are even more cost and material intensive and all suffer from the same problems. Because in the long-term, adaptation to rising and changing seas can still be overwhelmed, and the likelihood of their failure increases as the world gets warmer and storms get worse.

Which would ultimately lead to a managed retreat, I’m sorry to say. That’s what I keep coming back to when I look at or work on 100+ year adaptation plans for coastal communities. Over a long enough timeline, if our climate continues to change for the next hundred years, retreat is often the best of a bunch of difficult and distressing options. While people are loath to consider a managed retreat from increasingly hostile environments they are attached to, thinking long-term and cutting your losses to move elsewhere means not investing billions in infrastructure that will ultimately be overwhelmed this century, not trying to grow areas that have no long-term future for the communities living there, and not trying to put band-aids on a problem that needs a surgical response and lifestyle changes.

Florida is deeply, deeply vulnerable to climate change. It also has leadership that doesn’t take climate change very seriously and is investing heavily in ‘resilience’ infrastructure to save prodigious neighborhoods. As far as I’m aware, managed retreat isn’t being discussed. I can understand this on one level, as it would be deeply politically unpopular. However, thinking about climate change means thinking in hundred-year timescales. Looking that far into Earth’s future, implementing more extreme adaptation strategies like a managed retreat look to be the safest and best chance, not to save the buildings and communities in storm-prone areas close to sea level, but to save the lives that dwell there.

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