As Climate-Related Disasters Intensify, Retreat Emerges as Adaptation Strategy

An environmental lawyer examines the legal and social challenges that could complicate managed retreat from areas at risk to climate-related disaster.

When policymakers talk about adapting to climate change, they often focus on measures to reinforce towns and cities against natural disasters, such as the wildfires and flooding that have become more severe across the United States in recent years. Yet what is often more difficult to contemplate is the idea that some places may inevitably need to be abandoned. This idea of abandonment, or retreat from areas that are at great risk due to climate change, is understandably very difficult to think about. Retreat means leaving behind homes, and the possible disruption of communities and livelihoods. 

Mark Nevitt, associate professor of law at Syracuse University and a former legal counsel with the Department of Defense Regional Environmental Counsel in Norfolk, Virginia, explores how managed retreat ahead of likely disaster is itself a key climate adaptation strategy, and one which may ease, though not eliminate, the burden on impacted communities. Mark discusses his recent Kleinman Center-funded research into legal issues associated with climate adaptation, and how existing laws may present barriers to efforts to manage retreat from high risk areas.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

When policymakers talk about adapting to climate change, they often focus on measures to reinforce towns and cities against natural disasters, such as the wildfires and flooding that have become so severe across the United States in recent years. Yet what is often more difficult to contemplate is the idea that some places may inevitably need to be abandoned. This idea of abandonment or retreat from areas that are at great risk due to climate change is understandably very difficult to think about. Retreat means leaving behind homes, and the possible disruption of communities and livelihoods.

On today’s podcast, I’ll be discussing the issue of climate-driven retreat with Mark Nevitt, a Professor of Law at Syracuse University. Mark recently completed research funded by the Kleinman Center into the legal issues associated with climate adaptation. The research explores how managed retreat, ahead of likely disaster, is itself a key climate adaptation strategy, and one which may ease — though not eliminate — the burden on impacted communities. Mark will also discuss how existing laws may present barriers to efforts to manage retreat from high-risk areas. Mark, welcome back to the podcast.

Mark Nevitt: Thanks, Andy. It’s great to be here.

Stone: I want to start out this podcast just by acknowledging the immediacy of this issue right now and a lot of the pain that’s associated with it. We’re going to be talking about retreat today from areas that are at risk from flood hazard, from fire hazard — and I want to acknowledge that we’re talking about this as this is playing out in real time on the West Coast, in California, Oregon, and Washington State. Our hearts go out to everyone who is having to endure this right now. With that said, I want to go ahead and just start with the questions here. I want to ask, what is “managed retreat?” And what does “retreat” mean within the context of climate change?

Nevitt: Thanks for having me on the podcast, Andy. I, too, want to express my emotions, my heart to the people who are affected by the wildfires in Oregon and on the West Coast, in California. I think a lot of our discussion today will be on coastal zoning and flooding as it relates to retreat. But there’s also an issue, of course, with climate-exacerbated wildfires, and that’s affecting communities just as well.

I think I last spoke to Energy Policy Now’s audience a little over a year ago, discussing the national security implications of climate change. And those are still there, but it’s still great to be back and to be doing this important work. And thank you to Kleinman for supporting this research on climate adaptation strategies — How do we manage managed retreat?

There’s no one single definition of managed retreat that’s universally accepted across everyone — lawyers, policymakers, and homeowners. I think it’s important for your listeners to know that this is a fairly new scholarly area, as we start looking at the full spectrum of climate adaptation strategies that are out there. Of course retreat or moving your home has always been an option, but there has just been more focus placed on that as of late. Within the Kleinman paper, I rely upon the definition by Professor Siders at the University of Delaware, who is doing very innovative work in this area. She has a background in disaster response, and she’s also a lawyer. She defines “managed retreat” as “purposeful, coordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way.” I think of it, common sense, as sort of two things. It’s more of a proactive versus a reactive approach. After a disaster, you’re very much reacting to the impacts of that disaster. This is more of a proactive approach. And two, it’s more permanent. Some adaptation measures may be good for 10, 15, 20, 30 years, but being in a managed retreat strategy is more of a long-term, permanent solution.

Stone: What are the advantages to being strategic on managed retreat and in planning in advance?

Nevitt: There are several advantages. Again, I think it’s important to recognize that retreat is actually a form of climate adaptation, and it is the most sensible choice in many cases, but it does take time, effort, education, and of course resources — money — sometimes to get there. But it’s really an emotionally fraught choice, and I think that’s because “retreat” has very much a negative connotation. Particularly in my former profession as a military officer, “retreat” is seen quite negatively and is synonymous with defeat and loss.

But the big advantage, Andy, to your question is in the adjective before retreat, the notion of “managed.” This is again a proactive versus a reactive, risk-based approach to climate change. Like most things in life, it’s better to have a plan. If you know climate change is happening and that climate science is making clear that you will be affected — particularly frontline and vulnerable communities — so best to have a plan and to manage those impacts. Retreat is intended to reduce the cost of future emergency response and disaster recovery efforts and reduce the burden on the National Flood Insurance Program, which we’ll discuss a little bit. And that means that we should retreat out of harm’s way in advance when it is prudent or necessary to do so. We shouldn’t necessarily reflexively rebuild in response to a storm or a climate-exacerbated disaster simply because funding happens to be there or we’ve always done it that way. Managed retreat — the advantage in some respects is that it looks holistically. It challenges the business-as-usual approach that is often, frankly, baked into our laws’ regulations and our mindsets.

So again, a typical climate adaptation measure, such as building a seawall, raising a road, investing in infrastructure — that might be a perfectly workable solution. But after 20 or 30 years, that adaptation measure may well be outdated, particularly as our climate modeling becomes better. And so we’re back to sort of square one in reinvesting. It’s best to work through a more holistic approach and think through all the adaptation options. Managed retreat is but one of them. In my Kleinman paper, I highlight several principles for this, and I think the advantage of managed retreat is that it’s sort of an honest assessment of the risks that are in place, and it assesses climate change’s true risks, and then takes practical, sensible, and cost-effective measures to alleviate those risks via the full spectrum of measures. And managed retreat, of course, is one of those measures.

Stone: Retreat is not something that we see discussed much, and at times, those who bring it up have been called alarmists. Why should we be discussing retreat now?

Nevitt: I think there are a couple of reasons. We see every hurricane season, the weather becomes a little bit more extreme. You’ve had some excellent work at Kleinman and on this podcast on climate attribution science. The climate science is making clearer that the issues are not going away, related to sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather — pick your parade of climate horribles. The IPCC report, the National Climate Assessment, and just this last week the United in Science Report makes clear that we need to start thinking about innovative climate solutions. The National Climate Assessment makes clear that climate change will cause an increase in recurrent flooding and sea level rise. In the paper, I discuss that we have sort of an Earth 1.0, but climate change is forcing us to think of a destabilized Earth 2.0, where the traditional linear rules and models may no longer apply.

My environmental law professor I had in law school, Professor Richard Lazarus, wrote a very influential paper labeling climate change a “super-wicked problem that demands innovative solutions.” And managed retreat is one of those possible innovative solutions. So climate change makes clear that the business-as-usual approach is just not workable for a couple of reasons. One is climate change is a massively destabilizing force, where we will see a rise in extreme weather. And I’ll point listeners to your work and podcasts on climate attribution science. And the second is cost. It’s simply too expensive to adapt this business-as-usual approach. There are many examples of this, Andy, but the example I give in the paper is a single home in Mississippi that was rebuilt 34 times over the course of 30, 32 years, due to flood damage. The cost to federal taxpayers was close to $700,000. The actual value of the home was approximately one-tenth of that amount, about $70,000. So it’s not a good investment. It’s not a good use of taxpayer dollars, and it’s not sustainable. And that’s just a snippet. There are many other homes that are examples that I could draw upon. 

Stone: I want to take the issue we were just discussing a little bit further. How has the difficulty we have had in discussing retreat as a personal and a political concept made it hard to plan for retreat? Is this essentially why we have been reactive, rather than strategic?

Nevitt: Well, I think there’s a lot of baggage, for good reason, with retreat. It’s a fraught term, as is “abandonment,” of course. I think as human beings — I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist — but I think that we do have a strong desire to build, to invest, to move forward, to establish roots in communities. And once we’re already established those roots in those communities, it’s very difficult to leave the physical part of the place that we call “home.” And so just getting up and moving to a new place — there’s a lot of anxiety, and it creates an enormous amount of stress. And retreat can just be seen as a failure. Building back is often seen as a source of pride. You see that in a lot of the political rhetoric after a natural disaster. “We’ll build back. We’ll come back. We’ll be resilient. We’ll come back stronger.” And politically, Andy, I think it’s very hard to say, “Elect me. I’m the person for these innovative climate adaptation solutions, because I want to retreat and move entire communities away from the coastline.” So politically, it’s a very, very, very difficult challenge.

And again, I’d have to say that historically, the U.S. government, particularly on forced movement, forced retreat, does not have a particularly proud record. We look at the Trail of Tears for Native Americans in this country, displacement of communities to make room for the highway systems, a whole host of other environmental justice issues associated with moving communities out of their historical lands. But I do think it’s important to think of retreat — and maybe there’s a better term. I’ll think about this with my climate communication friends. But to think of it not as being what is lost, but what is being gained potentially, which is a safer, more resilient community that is ready to meet the climate challenges of the 21st century and beyond. That’s why you need education, resources, and frankly talk to the communities about what their needs are and how those needs can be met.

Stone: In your Policy Digest, which is available on the Kleinman Center’s website, you make it clear that existing laws make managed retreat difficult, create legal hurdles. Policies simply aren’t geared towards retreat and can actively discourage or make it, again, very difficult. Can you explain that?

Nevitt: Sure. So generally speaking, our laws, policies and regulations are designed more for that Earth 1.0, that non-climate change, non-destabilized Earth. They’re not fully taking into account the climate science we’re seeing in the National Climate Assessment, IPCC reports — that’s the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change report — the more destabilized Earth 2.0. One of my principles in the climate paper is that we should retreat in advance and not just automatically rebuild in response, and that would require us to think with fresh eyes regarding existing laws and regulations. I’ll give you one example.

The Stafford Act is the major federal law that is activated by the president at the request of a state governor following a natural disaster. The operative word there is “following.” It’s an ex-post measure. It’s an after-the-fact measure. And this actually facilitates a cycle of destroy, repair, rebuild that is reactive in nature. Federal funding, often through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, kicks in after the natural disaster, when it is too late. You saw that with Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and other extreme weather events. Now, that’s good that we have that funding for those homeowners in those communities that need it following these acts of God, these incredibly powerful weather events, but we need to think through more holistically about — does that make the most sense, to always rebuild, always repair following a natural disaster? So in some respects, you might be incentivizing behavior that is not in the best interest of anyone, particularly knowing that your home might be bailed out by the federal government. One of my managed retreat principles is to incentivize prudent behavior in the face of climate change. I think lawmakers are starting to wrestle with this topic, Andy. We saw that just a year or two ago in the Disaster Recovery Reform Act that was passed that slightly amended the Stafford Act. It’s a complicated piece of legislation, but it essentially moved some funds from post-disaster assistance to pre-disaster mitigation. So I think we should build upon efforts like the Disaster Recovery Reform Act and set the conditions for voluntary managed retreat.

Stone: So a moment ago, you talked a little bit about how some of these policies make it very difficult to adapt. Also, some of the policies cultivate risk — the current policies that we have — rather than minimizing it. One that stands out is the current policies under the National Flood Insurance Program, the NFIP. Can you talk about how that can create difficulties for managed retreat?

Nevitt: Of course. NFIP and managed retreat are two terms that often go hand-in-hand. And again, I think that we need to acknowledge climate change’s true costs. The National Flood Insurance Program, the NFIP, has effectively subsidized building and habitation in the flood zone since 1968. Like many federal programs, NFIP had really good intentions when it was first established, and it helped out homeowners, and it continues to help out homeowners who had difficulty obtaining flood insurance in flood zones. And of course, you’re still at play for NFIP today, particularly vulnerable communities and frontline communities who live in flood-prone areas and cannot afford to retreat. One of the problems, of course, with discussing managed retreat is the people with the fewest resources to adapt to retreat are often the people who are most disproportionately affected by this.

But just consider how much the world has changed since 1968 and how much our understanding of climate change has changed since that time. So NFIP, in some respects, fosters this unsustainable cycle of destroy, rebuild, repeat — that home I mentioned in Mississippi. There’s also a home, famously, in Houston which has similar type statistics, rebuilt 20+ times over a course of 20 years. The National Climate Assessment estimates that since the ’60s, sea level rise has increased the frequency of high-tide flooding by a factor of 5 to 10 in several of these U.S. coastal communities. And it’s my sense, my contention, that the NFIP program has not just kept up with this latest climate science. For any managed retreat strategy to be achievable, we have to be firmly aware of climate change’s true costs, and that means pricing climate flood risk accurately. I don’t believe this is an easy thing to do. It’s a very, very hard thing to do. It’s difficult. It’s delicate. It has to act more like a scalpel than a sledgehammer. This is hard, and I think the devil will be in the details. But I do think we need to set the conditions correctly, and that means looking at NFIP — does it make the most sense in all circumstances, for particularly flood-prone areas, to set the conditions for potentially managed retreat?

Stone: So those incentives to stay and rebuild in the NFIP need to be addressed, as you just said. Also it seems another key prerequisite to managed retreat is that, for example, homebuyers understand the risks that are inherent in the homes they are considering buying. Currently, it’s hard for people to get the information they need to value, say, prospectively the economic impact of climate change on a home they may buy. Is that home in a floodplain? How great is the risk? That type of thing. Can you tell us more about this challenge?

Nevitt: Of course, Andy. As I did further research into the laws and regulations regarding floodplains disclosure and flood risk disclosure, this actually really surprised me, and it may surprise many of your listeners. One of my principles in my climate paper is to fully embrace climate transparency, climate risk transparency. Climate change’s true risks and flood risks are often quite opaque and often not transparent, particularly for prospective homebuyers. When you buy a home, that’s often your most important financial decision you make in your whole, entire lifetime. You take out a 30-year mortgage. It seems sensible that you should have a full understanding of that history of the flood claims for that particular home and your neighboring homes — and potentially, even, the flood risk over the cost of that 30-year mortgage.

With climate change, that risk of course will only increase over time, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, only provides current owners with access to the full floodplains or flood claims history. As a prospective homeowner, as a legal matter, you don’t strictly have a right to that flood claim’s history. Right now that information is protected as a record within the meaning of the Federal Privacy Act. So then it comes down to each individual state to pass realistic disclosure laws that mandate that flood claims history be shared. By one estimate — and there are different estimates out there — there are six million homeowners who are susceptible to flood risk but may not even know it.

So the stakes, of course, in hiding climate risk are very high. In a recent joint report by Climate Central and Zillow, it estimated that we are on a path to place over 3 million homes worth 1.75 trillion — that’s with a T — dollars of increased flood risk by the end of the century. So it’s remarkable to me that when you go to buy a used car, you would have probably more information about that used car in many jurisdictions than you would about buying a home. There’s a CARFAX, which a lot of your listeners, I’m sure, are familiar with. It has a wealth of information about that car’s history. It seems sensible to me, for the most important financial decision that many of us will make in our lifetime, that you should really fully understand the flood risk for that particular home.

Stone: Once people do understand the real risks and the costs, it seems that the next step will be for them to potentially voluntarily retreat, if the risk is too great. So this is a complex issue, because not all people will weigh the costs equally or on purely economic terms. We’ve talked about other factors, such as community ties, et cetera. What would voluntary retreat look like? And where might we see it start to happen?

Nevitt: Sure. One of my principles, of course, is to favor voluntary managed retreat over forced managed retreat for the variety of the political reasons I mentioned, seeing that it is very heavy-handed, very politically contentious, and there’s a lot of historical baggage associated with forced managed retreat.

Stone: So we might see it in the form of voluntary buyouts in areas that are uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise, recurrent flooding. It could also be in wildfire areas and in paths of wildfires. The perfect candidates, I think, are twofold. Those are communities that are vulnerable to sea level rise, recurrent flooding. And then if the government were to buy those homes through a buyout program, you could transform those homes into green space that aids in flood water retention. So it’s sort of a two-fer. You move people out of harm’s way, and then you restore the area, the home, the property to sort of a flood water retention area. And that’s sort of the idea, not that far away in New Jersey, in the Blue Acres Floodplain Acquisition program that has been funded by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection since the mid-’90s. Several hundred homes have been identified and have taken part in this program over the last 25 years or so. So that is one potential way to do voluntary managed retreat. Of course, it’s very expensive, and it’s very complicated whether or not a homeowner — is it truly voluntary?

Another one I’ll highlight for your listeners is Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, which is from the 1970s, actually. It relocated their entire business district and ten residences to a new location following repeated flooding of the Kickapoo River in the 1970s. It affected several homeowners. It was voted on by the town council and received funding from the federal and state government. It was actually a quite innovative and quite successful form of voluntary managed retreat. One of the important aspects of managed retreat is that we see it as being an optimistic — new opportunities. Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin actually did an enormous amount of work to have solar energy. They passed an ordinance related to solar energy. This was in the 1970s, and it had very forward-leaning, handicap-accessible laws. It’s an example where, when you move, it doesn’t have to be all bad. There are opportunities there for innovation. There are opportunities there to be more resilient. And I think Soldiers Grove could be seen or held up as a good example.

Stone: I want to take a step back to the economics of this for just a moment. So in the New Jersey case that you mentioned, and in some other places where there have been buyouts, those have been relatively limited, right? We’re talking about a relatively limited number of homes. But what happens when we’re talking about whole communities, towns, or parts of towns that may need to be evacuated, retreated from? Where does the financing for that come from? Where would it come from?

Nevitt: That’s the million-dollar question, pardon the pun, Andy, on where it would come from. Even for forced managed retreat, you run into a funding issue, which I’m happy to talk about now, related to your having to provide just compensation to homeowners. And so on forced managed retreat and voluntary managed retreat, there’s going to be some sort of taxpayer bill in all likelihood. But right now, because of our existing laws — I mentioned the NFIP. There’s the Stafford Act, the Privacy Act — just disclosure about risks. A homeowner may not know their full scope or scale of risks before buying a home, the hope being without government intervention, people will vote with their feet on where to live, where it’s prudent to buy, and not voluntarily in the first place buy a home that is uniquely vulnerable to sea level rise and recurrent flooding.

In the first instance, the ideal circumstance is that the homeowner is just making an informed decision, based upon the risks. So that’s why it’s really important to level the regulatory fields to inform that buyer about that risk. Because once they’ve bought — you’re right. You’re in a funding cycle that we don’t frankly have the money for to do it at scale.

Stone: Let’s talk about involuntary retreat for a moment. And this is a difficult one. But under what circumstances or scenarios might there be a situation where communities are forced to leave for whatever reason? And then, as you also alluded to a couple of minutes ago, what are the legal issues more specifically that might prevent forced retreat from taking place?

Nevitt: Sure. Forced retreat, again, as we discussed, is also a financial issue for governments. Forced management retreat runs headfirst into a significant and costly constitutional issue as it relates to physical takings. I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with the Fifth Amendment, and there is a takings clause in the U.S. Constitution which states that private property shall not be taken by the government for public use without just compensation. For managed retreat, this is a good news/bad news legal story, irrespective of the practical political challenge of forced retreat.

The good news somewhat is that what constitutes public use under the Fifth Amendment is fairly broad. So eminent domain proceedings, which are part of an environmental or managed retreat program, would likely qualify as a “public use.” The definition for this has been expanded after a case from about 15 years ago called Kelo v City of New London. The bad news, of course, is that it comes down to resources — the just compensation component of the forced managed retreat. If we were to initiate eminent domain proceedings, if we were able to overcome the political backlash of that, that would require just compensation to each affected property owner. So even if we desire to mandate retreat, this is simply an unaffordable option for states and localities. Just as we cannot accommodate our way out of climate change by building higher and higher and more expensive seawalls, we cannot buy or way or force-retreat our way out of climate change. Having said that, there are probably certain cases or certain instances in Louisiana and in particularly vulnerable places that we should be thinking through this.

My other issue associated with this is this notion of regulatory takings, which is a bit different from physical takings. Let me just sort of walk your listeners through that briefly. Our friend, the Fifth Amendment, applies to physical takings as a textual matter, but it also applies to regulatory takings as a common-law or judge-made rule. And that has been the case for the last hundred years. Regulatory takings is just a situation where government regulation — not even taking the property versus eminent domain — limits the use of private property to such a degree that the regulation deprives the property owner of economically reasonable use of the property.

So what that means in the climate managed retreat context is that forward-looking adaptation — strategies, laws, regulations — may also run into a regulatory takings problem which requires just compensation. So this could potentially have a chilling effect for those jurisdictions that are maybe taking very, very far-leaning laws and regulations related to ownership of private property. I think that in the face of climate change and in the face of our Earth 2.0, I think this common-law doctrine of regulatory takings needs to evolve and needs to take into account the challenges caused by climate change.

Stone: So Mark, before we finish up here, I want to come back to the issue of social equity and justice. This is very much a concern here. I think one of the big questions is — when you’re talking about poor communities in areas that are at risk, for example, to flooding, what resettlement options may these communities have? Will those resettlement options be affordable? And can the fabric of communities be preserved?

Nevitt: This is an incredibly important question, as we think through the practicalities of managed retreat, particularly for vulnerable communities, frontline communities, communities of color that lack the resources necessarily to retreat and to accommodate and to adapt. Professor Lazarus, my environmental law professor — I’ll refer to him again. “Climate change is a super-wicked problem,” and you feel it here with environmental justice matters. So environmental justice is just another layer to this super-wicked problem.

So independent of government buyouts, those with the most resources may just choose to move because they can do so, it’s prudent for them, they have the money, and they do that. So managing managed retreat has to take into account complex environmental justice matters, particularly this nation has such a complicated history with this. Professor Siders at Delaware has actually done some research on this, and her research has found that over-reliance on cost/benefit analysis, CBA, may actually perpetuate social inequities. So sort of an over-reliance on just strictly a quantitative analysis on when you should retreat, when you should not retreat, actually could perpetuate social inequities for a variety of reasons. I do think we need to take a multi-pronged, a qualitative approach to this. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do think it’s a huge problem — not just in the United States, but also internationally. We haven’t talked about the international scope of climate change. But the developing world bears the brunt of the climate change’s impacts, and they are very much in harm’s way and lack the resources, much more so than the developed world.

Stone: Siders, who you just mentioned, also points out that we don’t have data that shows what happens to people who retreat in terms of economic, community, and emotional outcomes. She suggests that we leverage research related to other migrations to help understand outcomes of retreat. What’s your view on that?

Nevitt: I completely agree. This is a ripe area for research. It’s a ripe area for funding and research. And for students who are listening to this podcast who are thinking through this, there really are honestly more questions than answers on managed retreat. It involves law, policy, geography, environmental justice. It’s a very complicated area. So more research has to be done, and so many questions have arisen. The values and principles that I believe should guide retreat decision-making was the goal of the Kleinman paper. I highlighted five principles, if I can just walk your listeners through that ever so briefly.

Stone: Sure.

Nevitt: The first is to acknowledge climate change’s true costs. The second is to fully embrace climate transparency through information sharing. The third is to retreat in advance when necessary, and don’t just reflexively rebuild in response. The fourth is when possible, to favor voluntary managed retreat over forced managed retreat. And the last one is, we need to regulate managed retreat and take into account environmental justice matters. But because of some of these legal challenges that are related to the Fifth Amendment doctrine, we can be bold in our thinking, but we can’t be too bold.

But to be clear, Andy, I’m an academic. I’m not personally impacted by this as much as other communities are, so it’s important to bring their voices to the table and bring stakeholder voices to the retreat discussion. Their values and principles are much more important than Professor Mark Nevitt’s principles here, but I do think I’m trying to elevate the discussion or bring to the discussion some of the legal and policy challenges.

So just a couple of questions that I think need to be wrestled with, that are ripe for research. One is, just who is the decision-maker at this federal, state, local government, and where are these decisions made? For the scope of the problem, it’s remarkable to me that the decision-making is inherently ad hoc. And part of that reflects our federalism system of government, but we really do not have sort of a roadmap or a clear understanding of how and when these decisions should be made. At what point do we mandate retreat? At what point do we mandate retreat versus just set the ignitions for a voluntary retreat? And of course, who should pay? When you look at some of these examples I used — Blue Acres Floodplains, Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin — there are about a dozen or so examples in American history of communities leaving. The question is always who is paying for this? And what we see is it’s sort of an ad hoc group of state, local, federal, shared, private resources. So those are the questions I’m thinking about, and those are the questions I think really need to be answered.

Stone: Let me ask you a final question. With the election coming, what positions are the candidates taking on climate risk and the question of managed retreat — if at all?

Nevitt: Of course we’re just, I guess, less than 60 days away from an election. I’ll say a couple of things about this. The first is that your listeners are probably familiar with the Green New Deal, okay? And the term “managed retreat” is not explicitly mentioned in the legislative proposal, the Green New Deal by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey of Massachusetts. But some of the principles that we’ve talked about on this podcast about managed retreat are sort of implicit throughout the Green New Deal text, particularly as it relates to climate change’s impact on frontline and vulnerable communities. But to be clear, the Green New Deal does not have a holistic or a managed retreat paragraph saying, “This is how we should apply managed retreat nationwide.”

President Trump, perhaps not surprising to your listeners — he does not have a bold climate plan, and much of his rhetoric has been focused on energy production and job creation. But to his credit, he did sign into law the 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act, which helped move the dial a little bit on reforming the Stafford Act and helped streamline FEMA’s approach to disaster recovery.

Vice President Biden, the Democratic candidate, has made it clear that climate change is one of the several crises facing the United States and the world. He has a very forward-looking climate plan, but of course the campaign slogan that he relies upon, which is “Build Back Better,” which I think is more related to the coronavirus — that’s sort of anathema to some of the managed retreat principles we talked about here today. I read the Biden plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice. I’m heartened by the fact that there is environmental justice front and center on the title of his climate plan. Managed retreat is not specifically mentioned, but it does recognize that it’s very difficult to campaign on a strategy of managed retreat. But there are a couple of areas within his strategy that I think are touch points.

One is that Biden proposes a clean energy revolution legislation package, and that would help define a climate adaptation agenda. So Biden proposes bringing together innovators, stakeholders for common-sense zoning and building codes and helping communities build and rebuild before and after natural disasters and other shocks and stresses. I think as he implements this, if he were to be elected to implement this, the build and rebuild — there could be a discussion of retreat in there. The second touch point is Biden references several Obama-era executive orders on climate adaptation plans, particularly climate adaptation plans for federal agencies. And my sense there is that Biden would build upon what he can’t accomplish legislatively by putting in place executive orders that look at climate adaptation at the federal government level. Whether or not that would include retreat remains to be seen.

But the upshot, Andy, is managed retreat, for reasons that I discussed earlier, is not a campaign-winning slogan for candidates right now. But I think as you get into the details of what we should do and how we should do it, it becomes seen as a more workable solution.

Stone: Mark, thanks very much for talking.

Nevitt: Thank you.

Stone: My guest today has been Mark Nevitt, Professor of Law at Syracuse University. Mark’s research into climate adaptation strategies is available on the Kleinman Center website, and we’ve also provided a link to the paper in the episode’s show notes. To keep up to date on all the energy and climate policy research from the Kleinman Center, subscribe to our Twitter feed. Our handle is @KleinmanEnergy. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now, and have a great day.


Mark Nevitt

Associate Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law
Mark Nevitt was previously Lecturer in Law, Sharswood Fellow at Penn Law and also a law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.