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In places where people and property are particularly – and increasingly – vulnerable to disasters linked to climate change, one option is to permanently relocate communities out of harm’s way, a process that is sometimes called “managed retreat.”
On Tuesday, October 12th, SciLine interviewed: Dr. Miyuki Hino, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.
MIYUKI HINO: I’m Miyuki Hino. I’m an assistant professor in the department of city and regional planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And I study the social and economic impacts of climate change as well as how we can adapt in a way that’s efficient and equitable.
Interview with SciLine
What is managed retreat?
MIYUKI HINO: Managed retreat – it’s also sometimes called strategic retreat – is the purposeful movement of people and infrastructure out of harm’s way. It’s one of the strategies that we can use to protect people in a changing climate from events like floods, fires and hurricanes. And we call it managed or strategic because it’s more than just a person deciding to sell their house and moving. It involves some type of coordination to make sure that that risk isn’t just passed on to someone else. So for example, it could be a household moving, but they decide to sell their house to the government or to a conservation organization to make sure that nobody else builds on that land and that the risk there is permanently reduced.
Who is involved in considering, planning and executing this complex process?
MIYUKI HINO: It is a very complex process. We’ve studied examples of managed retreat in dozens of communities around the world. And we find that it really does go differently in every place. This is not a cookie-cutter strategy that you can just port from one place to another.
But one thing that we find consistently across all of the examples that we’ve studied is that it’s incredibly important that the households in the communities that are considering moving, that they’re driving the process from the very beginning. So they’re the ones who are saying, should we even consider moving? And if the answer to that is yes, then thinking about what that process might look like, what resources they would need, where they might go.
And government agencies in some shape or form are almost always playing a part. They might be facilitating the move, providing resources to support it and other forms of support. But we do find that it’s very important to the overall success of the process that the households and the communities that are affected are empowered to lead the whole process from start to finish.
How common is managed retreat?
MIYUKI HINO: This is actually a much more widely used strategy than people realize. I think people think of this as something that might only happen really far away every once in a while, but it’s much more common than that.
So in the U.S., there is a government program that facilitates managed retreat. It offers money to homeowners who live in really flood-prone places to restore that land to open space and make sure nobody else lives there in the future. And we’ve examined the records associated with that program, and we found that it’s been used in 49 of 50 states and tens of thousands of homeowners have gone through this process and made the decision to move. So it’s actually much more common than people might realize.
There are also some examples of communities that decide to move together. This is, as you can imagine, much more complicated than households deciding to do it. But there are examples from Pacific islands such as Fiji and Australia. And in the U.S., there are several tribal communities that are leading the way in this effort to try to move together as a community. It’s been really challenging for a lot of reasons, but we do see signals that this is going to become more common in the future.
What can be done to ensure equitable outcomes for people and communities affected by managed retreat?
MIYUKI HINO: Equity and managed retreat is a huge concern. It’s really a concern with all different types of climate change adaptation strategies because you’re affecting where people live and the natural resources they have access to. It’s important to realize that equity and managed retreat is not just about whether you’ve given someone enough money to move or not. It’s actually much more complicated than that. And so you can think of it on three different levels.
So the first is who is actually being considered as a possible mover. You can imagine that for some communities, this is totally off the table whereas in others, it’s a conversation that’s much more common. And that’s one way in which inequity can emerge.
The next question is then if someone decides that this is something they should consider, what resources are available to them to do so? How does that process go? Does the household, does the community really have input and ownership over the process or are they feeling like they’re sort of being forced into a choice that’s not really their own? And that’s another common place where we see inequity emerge in this process.
And the third level to consider is what happens once they move. So in the long term, do they actually end up being able to have a fresh start and thrive in that new community? Are they supported there? Is the community that’s receiving them supported to make that move smoother and to make that transition better or not?
And so there are lots of concerns about equity related to retreat. And it’s important to make sure that we’re thinking about them not just in how we do it, but who, how and then ultimately how they fare in the end.
How does managed retreat fit into broader conversations about climate change and migration?
MIYUKI HINO: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how climate change is going to affect where people live and certainly a lot of research indicating that climate risk is going to increase in some places. And that might lead to a lot of people deciding that where they live now is too hazardous or too dangerous to stay there.
I think the managed retreat conversation fits into this in two ways. So first is that moving is expensive. So there’s a lot of people who might feel that they would be better off in a different place, but don’t actually have the resources to move. And so where a managed retreat can be useful then is by providing the policy and the resources to enable people to move when that’s what they want to do if they wouldn’t be able to do that otherwise.
The second way in which it intersects is that often what we’ve seen in the past with big disasters and migration is a large outflow of people in the aftermath of a big event – think about things like Hurricane Katrina – and ultimately, those people not returning to where they came from and permanently staying in the place that they initially evacuated to. This is of course an extremely stressful, traumatic, difficult move for anyone who has to make it.
Managed retreat in some ways could provide an option to move in a way that is – has more forethought, has a little bit more time to prepare and make decisions about where they’re going to move, potentially with additional resources to allow them to get to the place where they want to be. And so it’s not the case that managed retreat is going to eliminate any form of disaster-related movement, but it does in some ways offer a way to help people move outside of that context of evacuating and not being able to return home.
Do you view managed retreat as a last resort?
MIYUKI HINO: One thing that I want to emphasize is that managed retreat is not just a last resort. It is not a failure to adapt at all. It is actually an active decision to adapt. And I think the more that we can embed retreat as another way of protecting families and communities in a changing climate, the more we’ll be able to really focus on the needs of the people at risk and ensure that this is a way for them to get a fresh start and continue being healthy and happy in a new place rather than this as something you do when you don’t have any other option. So I think keeping in mind that this is a protective strategy is really important to contextualizing how retreat can be part of climate change adaptation.
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