‘Managed Retreat’ From Climate Change Is Leaving the Most Vulnerable People Behind
FEMA’s program to help Americans adapt to climate change isn’t helping everyone
Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston in 2017 — but it hit some residents harder than others.
Neighborhoods in the coastal city with higher percentages of Black and poor residents had “significantly greater” flooding, according to research published earlier this year. The findings highlight an issue many in the environmental justice movement have been trying to address for decades: People from historically marginalized communities are likely to suffer more severe consequences from climate change.
And it turns out that efforts to provide relief to communities are already doing less for the people who need it the most.
As climate change threatens coastal cities like Houston, a controversial strategy for adaptation is gaining popularity. It’s called “managed retreat,” the strategic relocation of structures or abandonment of land to manage the risk posed by natural hazards like sea level rise, eroding coastlines, and extreme flooding.
One managed retreat program, administered by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since 1989, started as a way to mitigate flood risk but now helps coastal and riverine areas adapt to climate change. Through this program, FEMA buys out properties in flood-prone areas, allowing people in those regions to relocate, if they can. A new study published Wednesday in Science Advances shows, however, that this form of managed retreat can ultimately help those least endangered by climate change and leave the most vulnerable populations behind.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, many residents became climate refugees, relocating permanently to cities like Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. Hurricane Harvey left many Houston residents homeless. California’s recent years-long drought led some farmers in the state’s Central Valley, a major American agricultural hub, to consider leaving behind their waning crop yields. Retreat is already happening, wrote environmental social scientists this August in Science, but only as a means to reduce harm after a disaster strikes. They argued that a…