Climate Action

How much has been spent already to retreat from rising seas?

Sonya Hall, a homemaker, and her 11-month-old son Sa'keeli Willis, sit on the sea wall, damaged by storm surges and high tides, behind her house on the Quinault Indian Reservation in Taholah, Washington, U.S., March 4, 2020. ''These rocks here, these are fully intact but if you look towards our river, the waves go over them almost every single night, so it goes into our river and then the river overflows and then our streets overflow. Once our streets overflow, it will fill in our homes and then this whole street will be taken and it's possible to happen every time there's a high tide,'' Hall said. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith     SEARCH ''QUINAULT CLIMATE CHANGE'' FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH ''WIDER IMAGE'' FOR ALL STORIES.

Keeping an eye on the ocean in Taholah; 'managed retreat' from rising sea levels is increasingly common. Image: REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

John Letzing
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  • Significant amounts have been budgeted to move people to safety.
  • This 'managed retreat' from rising sea levels is increasingly common.
  • It's an acknowledgement some places can't be saved, but also a chance to build more sustainably.

Taholah sits beside some of the most stunningly beautiful nature in the world, less than a three-hour drive from the corporate offices and crowded cafes of central Seattle.

And most of it’s doomed.

Not many people in this coastal village in the US state of Washington, home to members of the Quinault Indian Nation, would likely argue with that. They’ve been seeking a solution to encroaching ocean water for about a decade now. Last month, the tribe finally received a $25 million federal grant to help move residents in harm’s way to new homes on higher ground.

That’s one element of a $135 million effort to relocate tribal communities in the US, and a small advance in what’s becoming a global “managed retreat” from sea levels that are rising due to climate change. The cost of this carefully-organized flight from disaster is adding up; it’s an acknowledgement some places simply can’t be saved, but in some cases could be the most responsible course of action – and an opportunity to revitalize ecosystems and economies.

The bid to move much of Taholah follows a $92 million grant used in large part to relocate residents of the Isle de Jean Charles in the US state of Louisiana. In Grand Forks, Canada, a $12 million effort to move an entire neighborhood down to its fire hydrants has left some locals in shock. Matatā, New Zealand earmarked about $9 million for its own managed retreat. And plans are afoot to relocate the bulk of Fiji’s population.

London calling: potential sea level rise in the UK capital at 4°C of global warming
London calling: potential sea level rise in the UK capital at 4°C of global warming Image: Climate Central/EarthTIme

Sea levels may be rising by just a few millimeters per year, but it adds up – every 2.5 centimeters of rise can erase about 2.5 meters of beachfront on the average coast.

Nearly half of the global sea level rise in the past 140 years is thought to have occurred just since 1992 – the year of the pivotal “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro. Last year saw a new record high.

Infrastructure casualties are expected to mount. One of the world’s biggest reinsurers estimates that climate impacts like rising sea levels could shave 18% from global GDP in the next few decades.

Thousands of people are already being forced to flee their homes every year due to such slow-onset hazards.

Who should pay for managed retreat?

A managed process that helps people transition to new homes can be helpful. But it also raises thorny questions about who should foot the bill.

In Maui County, Hawaii, where “rain bombs” linked to a changing climate have become more common, legislation recently moved forward for a $60 million “managed retreat revolving fund.” It makes use of fees assessed to visitors, though the county has sued some of the biggest oil companies to compel them to help cover the costs of such climate-adaptation measures.

The need to sort out necessary funds only promises to become more urgent.

Last year, a US station used to monitor shifting weather patterns was itself shuttered due to rising sea levels. And when one academic study was published more than five years ago, it was already able to analyse 27 different examples of managed retreat in 22 countries, which resettled about 1.3 million people.

Image: World Economic Forum

It’s not just homes that are in need of relocation. Rail service on a corridor between the US cities of Los Angeles and San Diego that carries millions of passengers every year, and billions of dollars in goods, was recently suspended due to coastal erosion linked to rising sea levels. A $300 million plan to move the tracks safely inland is in the works.

The term “managed retreat” has been panned for sounding defeatist; suggested alternatives include “graceful withdrawal.”

But it may sometimes provide a chance, done right, to transcend disaster. One scheme in the English town of Selsey, for example, acquired coastal land from farmers to allow it to become salt marsh – which is now both a natural protective barrier and a home to wildlife.

In some cases, the call to retreat can prompt innovation; increasingly prevalent floating homes in the Netherlands are serving as a proof-of-concept for more ambitious projects around the world.

Managed retreat is also an opportunity to address historical inequities.

In the early 19th century, it was estimated that there were about a thousand members of the Quinault tribe in what’s now Washington state. By the end of that century, after being forced to hand over millions of acres of its land, the official population was down to 95.

In Taholah, the same federal government that once confined the tribe to a reservation is now helping fund another relocation – this time to demonstrate some responsibility for safeguarding it from the impacts of climate change.

More reading on managed retreat and rising sea levels

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • A new homesteading movement? This piece argues that managed retreat from climate change could help revitalize rural America. (GreenBiz)
  • The easiest building to move might be the one that isn’t built in the first place, according to this piece – though curtailing development can be politically thorny. (Harvard Kennedy School)
  • In the world’s largest mangrove delta located in the Bay of Bengal, a managed-retreat plan magnified social divisions, according to this piece; “If the government were to ever come to buy them out for relocation, they will have no land to offer.” (The Diplomat)
  • Why we need muck to fight rising sea levels – marshes have been starved of essential sediment that helps build buffers between water and infrastructure, according to this piece, and now we may not have enough time to restore them. (Nautilus)
  • Not so rock steady – according to this study, rock coasts traditionally considered more stable than sandy coasts and soft cliffs are likely to retreat at a rate not seen for at least a few millennia, due to sea level rise. (Science Daily)
  • “Oil companies need to pay for the damage they knowingly caused.” More on Maui County’s bid to make big oil fund its climate adaptation, including managed retreat. (Inside Climate News)
  • An example of “unmanaged retreat” – when a recently-purchased beach house in the US state of North Carolina tumbled into the sea, footage of its demise quickly went viral, according to this piece. (Raconteur)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Climate Change, Infrastructure and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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