Daily PlanetWatch for Friday, August 23: Managed Retreat

Thomas Schueneman

Thinking about the latest environmental news headlines every weekday afternoon from the Daily PlanetWatch
  • The case for managed retreat. For many, it feels like the world is closing in around us. Hyper-partisan politics, random and indiscriminate violence unleashed upon innocents, a strained and tenuous economy clinging to the idea of endless growth.

    All this to a backdrop of a world ablaze, shrinking ice, and ocean waves lapping ever closer to prime real estate. The challenges facing the human endeavor are labyrinthine. Solutions, while often promising, seem distant, inadequate, or unrealistic. It can feed a sense of desperate resignation. 

    Instead of giving up, perhaps a better course of action may be managed retreat.

    In a paper published in the journal Science, A.R. Siders and his colleagues argue that retreat in the face of natural disaster already occurs, but rarely is such action "managed". 

    "Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," writes Siders. 

    With the writing written plainly on the wall, Siders suggests the only rational approach is accepting retreat, not a last resort, but the best course of action for adaptation in a warming world. With this acceptance we can plan and manage this retreat for the best outcomes.   

    "To the extent that retreat is already happening, it is typically ad hoc and focused on risk reduction in isolation from broader societal goals," says Siders in his research. "It is also frequently inequitable and often ignores the communities left behind or those receiving people who retreat. Retreat has been seen largely as a last resort, a failure to adapt, or a one-time emergency action; thus, little research has focused on retreat, leaving practitioners with little guidance."

    "We argue for strategy that incorporates socioeconomic development and for management that is innovative, evidence-based, and context-specific. These are not radical alterations to adaptation practice—adaptation planning often starts with identifying the goals people have, and context-specific implementation has long been a central tenet of adaptation—but they have been underapplied to retreat."
    We are an innovative species. We can do great things. But our hubris will be our undoing if we do not soon understand our place in the web of life. 

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