Imagine a river swallowing your home whole. Or a wildfire wiping out your entire community. Mother Nature’s power is enough to make a person question whether rebuilding is an option—especially in the era of climate calamity. In fact, some towns and villages are already implementing managed retreat due to rising seas and temperatures.
Managed retreat means different things to different people, but it involves moving an entire community to protect its residents from immediate or urgent climate impacts. Some communities may need to move only a few hundred feet to be safe. Others may need to relocate entirely. Managed retreat can be super complicated for remote villages where sewage, water, and power lines aren’t abundant. As you can imagine, this process can be quite costly, too. And state and federal governments don’t currently have a system to effectively support communities in need.
That’s why several researchers came together last week to publish a special section in the research journal Science. In the papers, more than 20 scientists from around the world covering topics such as decolonization and economics call on policymakers to take the proper steps to prepare for a future where managed retreat will become necessary. Though the team attempted its own analysis on the issue, many questions remain around who will be impacted where and what it’ll cost to help the most vulnerable.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re introducing you to Kotlik, Alaska, a community already on the move. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Leaving one’s home behind is never easy. Unfortunately, the climate crisis is forcing it upon many of us.
Victor Tonuchuk Junior has lived in Kotlik, Alaska, all his life. As the tribal environmental coordinator for the village, Tonuchuk is responsible for the community’s environmental issues. And there are plenty. Kotlik is a small village—home to fewer than 900 people and only three square miles large—but its remote and rural nature makes it easy for elected officials to ignore. But Kotlik residents need Congress and the White House to pay attention—because their home is sinking. And they can’t save it (or themselves) alone.
A group of scientists have come together to call on legislators and researchers to take action on the issue of managed retreat: “This special issue examines how research can engage with and support communities and governments navigating this uncertain landscape… Thus, we must consider not only what science can do but also how science is done, and by whom,” wrote Brad Wible, senior commentary editor for Science, in the opening of the journal’s special section published Thursday.
Managed retreat goes by several names, as Wible outlines in the commentary. There’s climate migration, relocation, climate displacement, among others. These terms all look at basically the same event where residents are forced to move due to climate impacts. For some, wildfires may be to blame. For others, flooding. The impacts vary by region and geography, but the outcome is always heartbreaking. That’s certainly the case for Tonuchuk and his Alaska Native community. In summer 2019, for instance, Kotlik residents jumped into emergency response mode after the corners of a home were hanging over the riverbank due to the ongoing erosion affecting the village.
“It causes a lot of anxiety for me,” Tonuchuk said. “I worry for the residents who face these threats, and it worries me more when they feel like they are alone and they don’t know what to do.”
And, in many ways, communities like Kotlik are alone. There’s no single governmental body that facilitates the managed retreat process. For places like Kotlik, relocation means building new roads, creating sewage and power lines, and moving 21 existing houses. That involves coordinating help from several agencies, said Max Neale, a senior program manager with the Center for Environmentally Threatened Communities at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a nonprofit partnering with about 44 Alaskan communities on plants for managed retreat, erosion, flooding, or impacts to infrastructure. For residents in remote villages like Kotlik, sometimes the only help available comes from each other and local groups dedicated to providing resources like the consortium.
“The federal government does not take a strategic approach to supporting our communities with climate change,” Neale said. “There is no lead funding entity, and there’s no clear policy. There are all of these different entities working independently, and we have to navigate all of the different programs and their requirements and limitations, which is extremely challenging.”
President Joe Biden has made the climate crisis a priority, but his administration has yet to address the gaps that exist around managed retreat. According to Neale, there is an $80 million annual funding gap over the next 10 years among Alaska Native villages alone. The amount of money governments are pouring into this urgent issue is nowhere near enough to address the need. That’s, in part, due to the fact that many programs that currently exist don’t cater to communities facing this reality. Agency regulations, grant requirements, and inevitable ineligibility make it impossible for communities to access funds—which are often competitive enough to access as is.
“Managed retreat is one possible solution to get people out of harm’s way, but it’s also the most traumatic way for a community to tackle this.”
Stephen Eisenman, the cofounder and director of strategy for the Anthropocene Alliance, a national network of grassroots environmental justice groups, is seeing this reality play out across the country. From the Geechee in South Carolina to homeowners in New York, coastal communities are facing increased risk from extreme weather disasters. While some (like Kotlik) recognize they must move to survive, others struggle to grapple with this prospect, especially communities of color that have dealt with enough displacement and abandonment as is.
“Managed retreat is one possible solution to get people out of harm’s way,” Eisenman said, “but it’s also the most traumatic way for a community to tackle this because it means giving up their homes, their communities, their friends, their families, places that they’ve known and loved for years. So it’s a controversial solution for many communities we work with.”
The trauma only compounds when a community’s elected body is failing to protect them. That’s why researchers are speaking out. Many communities can’t prepare for what’s to come simply because the climate-fueled disasters of the future may be unprecedented in nature. Trying to ride them out or build resilient infrastructure may not be possible everywhere. However, the topic of managed retreat requires more research to understand what is possible and to ensure that these processes happen equitably with the community’s needs first and foremost.
“Displacement is happening everywhere,” Bina Desai wrote in an email. The head of programs at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, Desai published a paper on the human cost of displacement for Science’s special section. “By understanding who is at risk of being displaced, and where, and how long those who are displaced are likely to remain so, and in what conditions, governments and the international community will be better equipped to prevent future displacement and address displaced people’s needs.”
That’s why two authors with the special section wrote a paper looking specifically at how to make retreat more proactive and effective. “Even though retreat, to date, has not gone that well, what we know is that it may be crucially important as the climate continues to change,” said Katharine Mach, an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami who coauthored that paper. “So what we really do in this paper is basically say, If retreat in the future is to be more supportive of people and the full diversity of passions and goals that they have, what might that mean?”
Managed retreat can’t live on its own island of political thought and imagination. It needs to be woven into discussions around housing affordability, urban and rural development, and green space expansion, said Mach’s coauthor, A.R. Siders, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. Leaders need to not only focus on buying out and tearing down houses; they need to prioritize building new ones. Most importantly, they need to keep the community’s emotions in mind. For some Indigenous peoples and Alaska Natives, for example, the land they live may be more than a home. It may be an ancestor or relative.
Luckily, the people of Kotlik won’t be moving too far as of yet. They’re looking to move only about a half mile from where the community currently stands. Still, they may have to move again after sea levels rise. “Who knows?” Tonuchuk wondered out loud when discussing this possibility.
The land and waters don’t provide like they used to. The salmon are fewer, and the permafrost is melting. And yet they push on—attempting to save one building at a time from the encroaching river. For now, the community is taking it one step at a time.
Correction, June 22, 2021, 11:20 am ET: The story previously described the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium as working with communities on managed retreat plans exclusively. Not all communities are yet planning for managed retreat. The story has been clarified to correct this error.