Long before she became an expert on the destabilizing effects of climate change, Idowu Ajibade lived them. As a young girl growing up in a marshy lowland neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, she recalls her family frequently leaving home when water levels got too high.
“At the time, I didn’t even know about climate change,” said Ajibade, who is now an assistant professor of geography at Portland State University. “But what I remember very clearly is that we would often get flooded and we would have to go to higher ground.”
Today, Lagos is among the countless communities around the world that is responding to climate change by moving people to higher ground—permanently. This strategy, known as “managed retreat,” involves removing populations from areas with high disaster risks and ideally assisting their relocation to a safer place. In a practical sense, this often means literally fleeing coastal towns, villages, and cities as sea levels rise and storms become worse.
The term “managed retreat” has been in use for more than two decades, and originally applied mostly to ecological conservation projects on rural shorelines facing erosion. But because the climate crisis amplifies flooding, wildfires, extreme weather events, and other climate-linked disasters, a growing number of experts and planners believe that managed retreat will be a necessary outcome for many densely populated communities as well, and one that will not be limited to the coasts.
The implications of moving entire populations of people away from escalating climate hazards are dizzyingly complex on practically every level. Families who have lived in an area for generations will lose their homes, jobs and livelihoods will be interrupted, and Indigenous communities will have to part with ancestral lands. All these scenarios are already happening in many areas.
Without careful consideration and inclusive dialogue, the move to save ourselves from climate disaster could also fuel the rise of eco-fascism, a far-right ideology that fixates on potential fascist actions in the name of environmentalism. Eco-fascist views are shaped by anti-immigrant sentiment, and climate-related retreats across the world will result in more migrants, so planners should be prepared to mitigate political tensions that might stem from managed retreat.
Because of these looming nightmares, experts on managed retreat have been sounding the alarm and pressing politicians and the public to anticipate all the intricacies of this climate adaptation strategy.
“Not everywhere in the world is going to retreat, but not everywhere in the world is going to build a seawall,” said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware's Disaster Research Center, in a phone call. “Like anything else in life, if you have a limited amount of resources, time, and energy, where do you want to invest it?”
“That’s a really difficult answer,” she acknowledged. “But it will be a better conversation if we have it purposefully instead of letting things happen without really thinking about how they add up to the larger picture.”
Retreat is not defeat
In the family of climate adaptation options, managed retreat remains the black sheep. It is often framed as a last resort, an admission of defeat, or worst of all, a return to the forced relocation policies that have disproportionately harmed Indigenous and marginalized communities.
“When we see depictions of retreat or hear about it as this kind of last resort, the sense is that it will be forced,” said Liz Koslov, an assistant professor of urban planning, environment, and sustainability at UCLA, in a call. The popular perception of retreat, she said, either involves the government mandating the removal of a population, or people ending up displaced in the wake of a major disaster and barred from returning to their homes.
Painful historical legacies have made the option of retreat literally unspeakable in some cases, according to Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, who works with Alaska Native communities undergoing climate-induced retreat.
“When I first started doing this work 15 years ago, government agencies wouldn’t even use the word ‘relocation’ to talk about what needed to happen,” Bronen said in a call. She cited the government internment of Alaska’s Unangan people during World War II—which resulted in the deaths of 10 percent of the population—as an example of why there is, justifiably, “tremendous resistance” to the idea of government-led retreat in some communities.
Managed retreat is a politically charged topic with the potential to intensify feelings of dread or despair about the future and impart misery. Such reactions are entirely understandable, given the daunting logistical challenges of retreat and the social, cultural, and moral dimensions of the problem. Given recent exposés of inhumane conditions in ICE detention centers in the US, or the callous disregard for Indigenous territories in the Brazilian Amazon shown by the Bolsonaro regime, it’s unfortunately feasible to imagine top-down retreats going very wrong.
There will be no easy answers on this issue, and the outcomes will be shaped by the unique pressures of each local community. That said, experts do agree on one overarching takeaway from past efforts at managed retreat: Give communities as many options as possible, and let them lead the way to avoid a catastrophic scenario.
“Not only does retreat not have to be forced, or a top-down process,” Koslov said, “it really shouldn’t be in order to be a viable adaptation strategy.”
Buyout, or kick-out?
Koslov has observed community-led retreat first-hand in her ethnographic research of Staten Island neighborhoods affected by Hurricane Sandy. When she first delved into the fallout of the devastating floods in 2012, she expected to find homeowners defending their properties or supporting protective infrastructure measures, like sea walls.
But the Staten Island neighborhoods most affected by Sandy—such as Ocean Breeze and Oakwood Beach—had experienced repeated floods for decades. Many residents were already on board with managed retreat. In fact, they were actually impatient for state buyouts of their properties.
“These are some of the most politically conservative parts of New York City, so I was really struck by watching older people who prided themselves on being individual homeowners—many of whom had longstanding, multigenerational ties to these neighborhoods—come together to organize essentially to disperse themselves,” Koslov said.
There are many explanations for this relatively open attitude to retreat in Staten Island, according to Koslov, who is writing a book on the topic. For example, the affected communities were predominantly white, so there was no historical spectre of forced relocation, though there was still plenty of distrust in government.
The tight-knit and multigenerational character of the communities also instilled a sense of collective memory about what the area was like before it was developed. At community events, senior women recalled details of their childhood homes, where they’d catch eels out of creeks that ran through their neighborhoods.
“They told the story of what retreat meant in a very different way than we often see it told,” Koslov said. “It was much more about giving land back to Mother Nature and repairing the kinds of bad development decisions that had been made in the city’s history in these local areas.”
This attitude helped the buyout process gain traction in Staten Island, and more than 500 properties in the borough have been purchased by New York state as of 2017. Though the ultimate success of the retreat will take more time to assess, the example challenges assumptions about how some communities will react to resettlement plans. It also demonstrates that managed retreat can offer opportunities as well as setbacks, including potentially enabling more people to enjoy what was once privately owned land.
“Think about the amount of coastline, especially in developed nations like the United States, that is private or blocked off,” Siders pointed out. “Historically, the coast was all public access so could we, by moving people away from the coast, actually increase publicly accessible coastline?”
While buyouts are a helpful means to facilitate managed retreat for property owners, and open up coastal areas for public benefit, they are not an effective strategy for communities that wish to remain intact, or for renters, homeless populations, and people living in poverty or in vulnerable public housing.
In a paper published this month in Climatic Change, Ajibade outlines the many ways in which existing wealth inequities in the Global South can, in fact, be exacerbated by managed retreat projects. She has seen this problem up close during her field work in cities such as Lagos, Manila, and Bangkok. One of the most common patterns she has observed is the removal of poor people from waterfront areas without sufficiently anticipating their needs at new resettlement locations.
“Historically, almost all around the world, the coast is really an economic base, whether you think about it as the wealthy people who live there, or for poorer people who make money there,” she said. “When you move people from that economic base, it is a complete shift for most of them.”
Even if the government does the basic work of establishing new homes for people at a safe location, it cannot ensure that they will stay there without an adequate livelihood. Ajibade has seen this “retreat and return” cycle play out in both Lagos and Manila.
In 2017, for instance, the Nigerian government forcibly evicted thousands of people in Lagos’ Otodo Gbame fishing community on the grounds that they posed an environmental risk. Since there was no plan to relocate the population, many returned to live on canoes, or ended up in other crowded waterfront areas.
“Here in the West, it’s a buyout,” Ajibade said, “but in the Global South, it’s like a kick-out.”
Managed retreat requires equal treatment
These growing inequities aggravate the existing “trust deficit” between marginalized peoples and governments who prioritize more privileged classes. Not only does this produce environmental and social injustices, it is simply not practical or sustainable over the long term.
“Until we think about managed retreat in the sense that there’s no special treatment for anyone, we cannot really address that trust deficit,” Ajibade said. “Retreat is retreat.”
Fortunately, there are some positive examples of managed retreat in Global South cities. Ajibade cited the relocation of more than 18,000 families living on the banks of Pasig River, which runs through the heart of Manila. The river became too polluted for people to safely remain proximate to it, so a retreat plan was put into place to move them to other parts of the metro area.
The Asian Development Bank offered a $176 million loan to the Philippines government to carry out the plan, on the condition that the riverside communities would be centrally involved in decisions about the move. This mandate to empower the communities in the relocation process has eased the transition and changed the outlook of the villagers toward the river, according to Ajibade. “They have become custodians of the river because they were part of the process and they understood why it was important to leave,” she said.
One of the biggest considerations for retreat plans is whether a community wishes to remain fully intact at a new location. Managed retreat plans in Staten Island, Lagos, and Manila have not typically prioritized this option. But for Alaska Natives, some of whom have already begun relocating, it is a core goal.
“I don’t think Alaska is alone, having traveled to many different places in the United States where people are really connected to their neighbors or their family members,” Bronen said. “The buyout program is not designed to facilitate that type of a process.”
Because of the limitations of buyouts in this scenario, Bronen and her colleagues have been developing new models to support Indigenous communities like Newtok, Kivalina, and Shishmaref. Some of these Arctic places have been inhabited for more than 4,000 years, but climate change has made them unlivable due to permafrost melt, flooding, erosion, and devastating storms.
It has been a hard journey, but about a third of Newtok’s population is now relocating to a site nine miles away called Mertarvik, with the rest planning to follow. The new location was selected in part because it enables the community to continue its subsistence lifestyle and cultural traditions. Housing and access roads have already been constructed at Mertarvik, and development of the new town will continue as the Newtok community resettles there.
”I wish it was completely figured out, but there are no roadmaps,” Bronen said. “We need a federal institutional framework to deal with relocation, because we have no government agency that has the funding or mandate to do this.”
It is also imperative that managed retreat is not regarded only as a burden to affected communities, but a call to all humanity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The severity of this problem will be directly linked to our collective willingness to reduce our global carbon footprint.
Even in the best case scenarios, managed retreat will still be the only option for some people. To stave off the most extreme consequences of that sacrifice, we need to get ahead of the problem.
“We’ve often tried, especially people of this century, to idealize human freedom,” Ajibade said. “But climate change is telling us: ‘No, there is now liberty with a caveat.’ Some of us will have to move from where we’ve always lived. Some of us will have to move from where we love.”
“It’s the reality of living in an era where climate change is just here.”