Climate change threatens coastal communities through rising sea levels, and a team of researchers is calling for a solution: retreating.
An article published in the journal Science on Thursday argues that humanity should stop thinking about moving away from at-risk areas as an admission of defeat. Instead, the three researchers argue that moving could help communities thrive and adapt to new circumstances.
“We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” A.R. Siders, assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said in a written interview. “We’re not winning or losing: we’re adjusting to changes in nature. Sea levels rise, storms surge into floodplains, so we need to move back.”
It’s a stark warning, and one that seems to suggest humanity’s best hope is to admit that the climate is changing. But rather than giving up the fight to reduce emissions and take pollution-cutting measures, the group argues that changes are coming to some areas, and thinking ahead could avoid a worse disaster. Future plans could include new city designs, similar to the United Nations floating city concept, or it could mean looking at how best to use the land taken over by the rising sea level.
Retreat is a concept that’s come up before. This map from Parag Khanna envisions how humanity may adapt to a world four degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels:
Climate Change: Why Retreat Could Be the Best Option
As the planet’s average temperatures increase, ice has melted and risen sea levels. This rise is estimated to have amounted to five to nine inches over the past 100 years.
These rising seas will affect people all over the world, with two in five of the world’s population based within 100 kilometers of the coast. Around two million people live in cities on the coast: Florida has five coastal cities at risk from rising levels. Even whole countries, like Mauritius, are in danger from rising levels.
“The changing climate has transformations underway and in store, whether it’s from risks of fire, drought and desertification, sea-level rise, extreme heat, or heavy rain,” said Katharine Mach, associate professor at the University of Miami. “To keep communities vibrant and safe, changing the narrative may be one of the most empowering tools societies have at their disposal.”
The group argues that, instead of ignoring the growing issue, officials need to consider the issues around why people live there and what can be done. Developers can profit off moving people into oceanside properties, creating an incentive to entice more people to live in unsafe areas.
Another factor could be that people don’t feel they have a choice in living in an unsafe area, possibly for work reasons. That could mean retreat becomes a luxury for the wealthy.
“No matter the circumstances, moving is hard,” said Miyuki Hino, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University’s Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources. “People have chosen where to live for a reason, and it is often difficult to find a place to move to that meets all their social, cultural and financial requirements. One major challenge with retreat is that we’re so focused on getting people out of harm’s way, we miss the chance to help them move to opportunity.”
Floating cities are one idea proposed to tackle these rising levels in a sustainable way. The Seasteading Institute, which counted Peter Thiel among its early backers, has designed a floating city concept that would enable people to move from one government to another with ease. The United Nations has proposed an alternative design, in partnership with Oceanix, that would enable thousands of people to harvest ocean crops and live in a zero-emissions setup.
Other cities, like Rotterdam, have worked to embrace rising sea levels. The city has piloted a Floating Pavilion project, looking at how the sea could be used for food production in controlled environments.
Although the group notes that retreat may not even be necessary in the next decade, it’s possibly a reality that communities will have to start considering.