I recently had the privilege of serving on the Advisory Committee for the conference “At What Point Managed Retreat? Resilience Building in the Coastal Zone,” an event hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.  The program provided a platform for academics, government agency representatives, scientists, activists, and residents to give voice to their perspectives on “managed retreat,” a form of climigration that usually involves public purchases of vulnerable private properties. Climigration is a term used to describe the broader phenomenon of relocation due to climate change.

When my CBI colleagues and I started working on climigration five years ago, it was tough to find more than a handful of people talking or writing about climate-caused relocation in the United States. In fact, we started the Climigration Network several years ago to connect the few people who were engaging on this topic and help build a field of practice around community-led climigration. The network has grown rapidly, and both news and research on this topic has exploded. To see hundreds of people gathered at a conference dedicated to the topic at a major university was thrilling.

At the end of the conference I was asked, along with CNN’s John Sutter and Bill Solecki from Hunter College, to give some closing reflections on the event. Preparing my remarks was an emotional experience.  I felt raw from being battered back and forth between grief and hope throughout the conference, so I decided to reckon with it the best I could. On the side of grief, I shared:

  • My deep sadness for the many ways this issue highlights the inequities in our society. Many living in the most vulnerable U.S. geographies are low-income and/or people of color, and that is not a coincidence.  Speakers illustrated how racist and otherwise discriminatory housing and zoning policies around the country had, over decades, driven poor and minority populations into inadequate housing in known floodplains. I also heard firsthand accounts from speakers representing various tribal nations describing the numerous ways the survival of their culture is tied to their land, and now they are facing yet another loss of homeland.
  • From an institutional perspective, I felt despair at the absence of governance structures designed to support the scale of relocation that may be needed. Public insurance systems, for example, provide a necessary backstop for people in vulnerable situations, but they also incentivize rebuilding and staying in unsafe places. And, nearly all federal and state funding for relocation is held in reserve until disaster strikes, rather than being funneled thoughtfully into preventing catastrophes and helping people move before a crisis occurs.
  • One speaker, Susi Moser, shared her research on the high rates of depression experienced by people who work on climate change, due in large part to their (our) grief about the harm so many people are and will increasingly experience.
  • The intense pressures on municipalities to increase their tax base drives cities and towns – even those trying to reduce their carbon footprint and otherwise proactively address climate change – to continue to build in floodplains and other vulnerable places, in spite of knowing the long-term danger created by these actions.

Digging into my grief forced me to sort my thoughts into buckets I could set down, pick up, and evaluate one-by-one. Each had its own dynamics – its causes and potential solutions. I was experiencing something I often try to facilitate with my clients and stakeholders on seemingly intractable issues: the release and insight that comes from honest reflection and willingness to say the hard, true things. Through this process, I felt more connected to other conference participants and those whose lives are being disrupted by climate impacts. Giving voice to the pain seemed to open a little mental and emotional space for the hope to creep in, and for some creative thinking about next steps. So, on the hopeful end of the spectrum, I said:

  • I felt encouraged by the trajectory of the work and the scholarship. A community of practice is emerging as people are creating resources and testing solutions. As my CBI colleague Bennett Brooks [Senior Mediator] said to me earlier in the day, “We still have so many questions, but our questions are getting smarter.” Just a few years ago, for example, stakeholders were dreaming of having a “toolkit” for communities interested in managed retreat. The Georgetown Climate Center is now developing that resource and will publish it in early 2020. It will synthesize case studies, policy frameworks, and best practices from various community processes on managed retreat. Another example is the ingenuity with which people are handling one of the most challenging aspects of managed retreat – the enormous amount of time it takes for a government buyout to happen once a homeowner decides to accept it. There are now several people developing various mechanisms to dramatically reduce the wait time, making retreat a more reasonable option for middle- and low-income residents.
  • The number of people thinking and talking about managed retreat is growing exponentially, and the voices are becoming more diverse in personal perspective and expertise, geography, and professional discipline. For example, I met people at the conference from across the U.S., including Puerto Rico, Alaska, and Hawaii; people from tribal nations; and from China, Japan, and Brazil. The conference drew artists, psychologists, and journalists, along with the traditional conference participants: academics, agency representatives, and consultants.
  • Increasingly, people are widening their lens from focusing on how to leave a vulnerable location to examining where they are going – the destination. This change may have the effect of shifting attention from loss in one place to gain in another. Several speakers talked about incentivizing community building in less vulnerable places, so people will have attractive places to retreat to.
  • I saw a vision of a possible peaceful future. In his film, Managed Retreat, Nathan Kesinger documents the transformation of a street that was flooded in Hurricane Sandy back to its natural state. The images left me with a feeling of calm and the sense that those who had left had done something heroic. Researcher Liz Koslov said some who relocate feel proud because they know they are giving a gift to neighbors that remain by expanding the natural buffer between them and the impacts of the next storm.

I often return home from conferences with my head reeling. This time my heart was reeling, too, and no wonder. I was at the conference representing CBI, an organization that became engaged in climigration in large part because we believe managed retreat can only be considered successful when it accounts for a broad range of human experience. Early on, as we started working with communities trying to deal with climate impacts, we witnessed a great deal of resistance to the topic of managed retreat. We hypothesized that part of the struggle was that the topic was being discussed in bureaucratic and technical terms without examining the needs of the people doing the relocating. One of the core principles of the Climigration Network captures our intent to change that narrative:

Local Self-Determination and Humanity: We believe local voices must determine what their particular community wants, needs, and is willing to do. Also, transitions can be emotionally and psychologically taxing, as well as exciting and full of opportunity. We are committed to helping communities and individuals deal openly and productively with the very real personal and psychological dynamics of climigration.

In the end, managed retreat boils down to a lot of individual people with private property rights making a collective decision to leave a place that has meaning to them. It is a massive collaboration puzzle – one that CBI is trying to help solve.

Through the Climigration Network, we have provided funding and support to local people experimenting with bold new approaches to climigration in their communities. We also have a project in Piermont, New York (which borders the Hudson River and has experienced significant shifts in water levels over the past decade). Bennett Brooks is helping Piermont community leaders host a series of conversations among neighbors about their adaptation and relocation options. In Scituate, Massachusetts, I recently completed a coastal community assessment that revealed great interest among community members in exploring managed retreat, which resulted in a recommendation to the town to seriously consider it. The town applied for and received assistance from the Massachusetts Area Planning Council to conduct a managed retreat feasibility study.

We at CBI and in the Climigration Network are eager to widen the circle of communication and innovation on climigration and would love to hear from others who are engaging on this issue. Please reach out to me if you have thoughts and ideas, and if you would like to join us in choosing hope over grief as we all navigate this challenging transformation. 


Please click here to see more content from CBI Reports: Summer 2019.