Researchers say climate change means humans will have to retreat from the coasts — so let’s do it the right way

Flooding in the coastal city of Cebu in the Philippines.
Flooding in the coastal city of Cebu in the Philippines.J. Lloa/Stanford University

If we can’t stop climate change, then we should take a thoughtful approach to how people can retreat from areas that climate change puts at risk.

That’s the message in a new article published Thursday in the Policy Forum section of the journal Science that calls for a carefully planned “managed retreat” from at-risk areas such as the coastlines that are expected to be increasingly battered by rising seas.

“We need to stop picturing our relationship with nature as a war,” said A.R. Siders, a former Harvard University environmental fellow who joined the faculty of the University of Delaware this summer.


“We’re not winning or losing; we’re adjusting to changes in nature. Sea levels rise, storms surge into flood plains, so we need to move back,” Siders, the lead author of the article, said in a statement from the University of Delaware.

Moving away from endangered areas usually occurs after disasters, and it’s often handled inefficiently and haphazardly, she said. The researchers argue it can be done better.

“Retreat is a tool that can help achieve societal goals like community revitalization, equity and sustainability if it is used purposefully,” Siders said. “People sometimes see retreat as defeatist, but I see it as picking your battles.”

The researchers acknowledged it’s a difficult, complex issue.

Coauthor Miyuki Hino of Stanford University said in the statement, “No matter the circumstances, moving is hard. . . . 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.”

Siders said in a statement from Stanford that the biggest barrier to retreat is the short-term benefits of living in risk-prone areas. People like living on the coast, on riverbanks, and in fire-prone wilderness. Developers profit from building homes in those places, while local governments reap the tax revenues.


At the same time, some people might be unaware of the risks or ignore them, while others don’t have a choice because their jobs are nearby or the area is what they can afford.

“It’s a complicated mix of psychological, economic, and social issues,” she said. “To address these issues, managed retreat needs to be embedded in larger conversations and social programs. Policies that give people incentives to stay need to be reformed. Programs need to give people reasons to leave. Retreat can’t be just about avoiding risk: it needs to be about moving towards something better.”

“Future retreat,” the paper said, “will need to be engaged with a spirit of experimentation: a willingness to try new things paired with rigorous research and evaluation of process and outcomes for all affected.”

“The question is no longer if some communities will retreat — moving people and assets out of harm’s way — but why, where, when and how they will retreat,” the paper said.

“The opportunities presented by succeeding in this work are immense and the risks urgent and growing,” it said.