Among researchers who study the potential effects of rising sea levels, and among the city planners in coastal areas who are actively trying to come up with viable plans for their communities, the idea of retreat is catching on. The alternative is to build physical defenses—costly sea walls, levees, or flood gates that might not do the job. In extreme cases, retreat might mean relocating existing critical infrastructure; more often, though, it simply means avoiding building new things in vulnerable areas so that buildings, roads, or entire communities don’t end up in a future floodplain. That might seem like common sense, but those waterfront areas are often the most desirable real estate in the city.
In the UK, the National Trust, which is responsible for hundreds of miles of coastal property, has been advocating a policy of retreat or “rolling back.” The country needs to abandon its “Churchillian” attitude of “holding the line,” the organization says, and consider letting some areas go. These policies are outlined in the Trust’s report “Shifting Shores,” available here.
It turns out, though, that people have strong emotional responses to the word “retreat.” As detailed in this article, some scientists—even those whose own term for their field of study is “climate migration”—choose to avoid the word altogether when talking to the public. It implies that we’re losing the battle, and even if the scientists themselves believe that is exactly what’s happening, they don’t want to alienate their audience. If the situation seems hopeless, their thinking goes, people will avoid doing anything about it at all.
Others, such as Klaus Jacob of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, use the word often and deliberately in an attempt to make people understand the scope of the problems we’re facing. He says New York City’s time is limited, at least in its present form, and that it will become “a gradual Atlantis.” Yet waterfront development in New York is booming. As one real estate agent says, “Everybody’s going to build wherever they can, every inch. Unless we are permanently underwater, I don’t think there will be much change.”
There’s a similar trend in San Francisco: Officials believe that by the end of the century permanent flooding will be 3 feet above the current high tide level, and as high as 8 feet above current high tide level during severe storms. But even while the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been developing those models, the city has approved development on 50 waterfront parcels, representing billions of dollars of investment. According to the article, “The city seems to be doubling down on San Francisco’s southeastern waterfront as the place for a massive amount of new development. The Southern Bayfront Strategy encourages developers to build 20,000 new homes and up to 5 million square feet of offices on open space…on the city’s eastern waterfront.”
Karen O’Neill of Rutgers University—one of those scientists who avoids using the word retreat—says a better solution is for cities to develop attractive inland spaces that make people want to move away from the water. That seems eminently reasonable and also highly unlikely, given most people’s focus on the near term and the popularity of the shore. What do you think—does the terminology matter? Should we be limiting near-shore development or letting it continue? If we let it continue, should the National Flood Insurance Program cover it? Leave a comment below.