by Sam Jarman on 22 Aug 2019

Flood damage: climate retreat strategies should focus on improving social and economic conditions. (Courtesy: iStock/PattieS)

As climate change threatens communities around the world, millions are faced with the prospect of relocating to safer areas. In most places, however, neither individuals nor governments are prepared for this “climate retreat”. In the face of this challenge, researchers in the US led by Anne Siders at Harvard University propose that climate retreat be used as way of achieving long-term social and economic goals. By shifting the current view of retreat as a failure to adapt to climate change, their analysis offers critical guidance to those who will be forced to relocate in the future.

In the coming decades, climate change is widely predicted to increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, raise sea level, and threaten agriculture, among other threats. To many communities, these factors mean that relocation to less affected areas is now an ever-looming threat. In areas like Louisiana and Bangladesh where this is already happening, retreat is seen as a one-time action that ignores the many needs of communities. This could leave those affected worse off in the long term. Siders’ team proposes a shift from viewing retreat as a last-resort approach, and a failure to adapt to inevitable changes, to a strategic one, which maximizes social, economic and environmental benefits.

Siders and colleagues call on communities, governments and research institutions to use scientific data to draw up strategies to identify which communities need to retreat. When relocation should occur, and where people will go, should also be agreed well in advance. When the time comes, these strategies will allow communities and governments to ensure that a retreat can run smoothly, while minimizing negative impacts. The goal, says the team, should be to develop context-appropriate strategies that accommodate for specific community needs, including employment, cohesion of close knit-groups, and sensitivity to indigenous cultures.

Systems overhaul

Furthermore, Siders and colleagues propose an overhaul of financial and legal systems, which currently complicate the retreat process by incentivizing communities to remain living in risk-prone areas. To do this, they suggest streamlining financial and legal bureaucracies to allow different departments to work more efficiently with each other and with communities. With the right approach, the researchers suggest that retreat can be incorporated into toolsets for achieving positive outcomes for the socioeconomic development of communities, helping them to thrive after relocation.

Siders’ team acknowledges that no matter what approach is taken, climate retreat will be difficult to achieve effectively, and will require a willingness among communities to engage with a new, experimental approach to relocation. Ultimately, the scope and scale of retreat can only grow in the coming decades, but with strategic, managed approaches to relocation, the prospects of many global communities could become far more positive.

The proposal is described in Science.

Sam Jarman is a science writer based in the UK

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