Beyond Evacuations: Climate Change May Mean Abandoning Our Coasts Forever

A climate scientist thinks that we aren't taking major storms like Florence seriously enough.

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Sep 13 2018, 5:59pm

A house on the North Carolina coast during Hurricane Irene in 2011. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Get out, and stay out. Or at least, don’t come back and build a high-rise. That’s the message Orrin Pilkey, a climate scientist and emeritus professor at Duke University, hopes Hurricane Florence will send lawmakers and coastal residents when it smashes the southeastern US this week. As climate change warms the oceans, swells the seas, and makes deadly hurricanes a fixture of American life, a massive and permanent retreat from the coasts may be the only way to protect lives and livelihoods in the long run, Pilkey says.

Like Harvey did in Houston and Maria did in Puerto Rico, Florence is expected to bring widespread devastation to the southeastern US coast: demolished buildings, sustained power outages, and death. The worst part is these storms are just the beginning. Global temperatures have climbed one degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and could could exceed 1.5 degrees of warming within the next 25 years, largely thanks to fossil fuel emissions. Climate change is causing storms like Florence to worsen, and those who will be hurt the most are poor people who live in flood-prone areas.

In his 2016 book Retreat from a Rising Sea, Pilkey, whose family’s Mississippi home was destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969, argues that unchecked climate change could make coastal regions uninhabitable sooner than we think. He thinks coastal communities should respond to this threat by moving away from the ocean now, before it’s too late. Pilkey takes particular aim at post-storm “urban renewal” projects—replacing modest homes with high-rises and mansions, for instance—that swell coastal populations. But even ordinary residents might have to give up the comforting dream of rebuilding after the storm.

Sooner or later, he says, coastal communities will have to choose from two bad options: hunker down beyond proliferating seawalls, or pick up stakes and move inland, forever. As Florence approached, I talked with Pilkey about his thoughts on the storm, climate change and “managed retreat.”

VICE: First, what role does climate change play in a storm like Florence?
Orrin Pilkey: There are two aspects of climate change that are impacting the nature, magnitude, and direction of hurricanes. One is the warming of the ocean. In theory, warmer ocean water gives more energy to a hurricane. The second is sea level rise. The seas are rising, and with each increment of sea level rise there is an increment of inland penetration by hurricanes. In general, we are getting more severe storms with the rising sea level. This is happening already.



What can be done to prepare for more severe storms hitting our coasts?
Unfortunately, the American shoreline policy is what I call a catastrophic plan. The plan is: We’re not going to do anything until we have a real catastrophe. That is really stupid in my view. We know about sea level rise; we know storms are getting more intense. We should be starting a managed retreat. We should be moving buildings back, or demolishing buildings that are at great risk. We shouldn’t allow any more building next to the beach, and any buildings on barrier islands should be small. For instance, high-rises should not be built on barrier islands.

We should be planning and executing the beginning of a retreat from the shoreline in response to sea level rise and increased storm severity.

"When I’ve talked to people on the coast, I’ve been told to go jump in a lake, and a lot worse than that."

I think people realize cities like New Orleans and Miami are seriously endangered. But what about other cities in the Southeast?
The Charleston Peninsula is quite low. To their credit, they are trying to respond to sea-level rise. They’re even demolishing a building or two. A place like Annapolis, too, is impacted by king tides, and there are signs that the sea level is rising pretty rapidly there. We have several communities of significant size in Florida, like Fort Lauderdale, that are sitting on the edge. It’s hard to think what you’re going to do with a city like Daytona Beach. They need a beach—they’re a tourist community—but they also need a seawall. So, what’s more important: buildings or beaches? It’s a real question, and different communities are going to have different responses.

For a lot of people living on the coast, the idea of retreating—giving up their homes, their way of life—is going to be a tough pill to swallow.
They’re going to swallow it sooner or later. The sooner they swallow it, the better off they’re going to be. I understand completely. When I’ve talked to people on the coast, I’ve been told to go jump in a lake, and a lot worse than that. In many of the communities on the coast, their beaches will become unstable. And if they don’t want to lose their buildings, they’re going to have to rely on a seawall. So, you’ll have a tourist community without a beach. That’s already happening. For instance, Miami Beach is considerably narrower than it was.

Yes, it’s painful, no question about it. When you look at South Florida, you’re looking at 4 million people who have to get out. They’ll be climate refugees. We’re talking about a really major upset to our society. There will be a lot of unhappy people, of course. But we can’t go back to just building seawalls. We have to go against the grain. If we don’t go against grain we’re going to lose it all.

Who would coordinate this kind of mass relocation?
If you’re going to move 4 million people, you need to make sure they have housing and employment down the road. Whether it’s planned or not, this is something that’s going to happen in 30 to 40 years, and it’s going to happen pretty quickly. First the grocery goes away, and next thing you know the doctor goes away and then the minister goes away. Communities will disappear. Nobody at this point is thinking about what to do with refugees.

This is a many-faceted problem that we should be thinking about now. For the communities who might accept these refugees, those that plan now will be ahead of the game when the rush begins. It’s true that most people don’t even accept the fact of a refugee rush. But if all the ice melts—the mountain glaciers, the ice sheets, the Antarctic ice sheet, Greenland—the sea level will rise 220 feet. If this happens, all of Florida will go away. Think of the number of refugees there would be. Of course, 220 feet of sea level rise is probably not going to happen. But we’ll see somewhere between zero and 220 feet, and three to four feet is very likely.

How do we make sure a massive relocation is fair and just? How do we make sure the most marginalized communities—like the Gullah in South Carolina, whose entire way of life depends on the coastal environment—are prioritized?
There are 34 native communities on the shoreline in Alaska. There are lots of communities that subsist on fishing and hunting. What are we going to do with them? The cost of moving those villages is huge. The Gullah situation is not unique. The plight of some of America’s native tribes remains largely unknown to Americans, but it is serious.

Are you hopeful that a managed retreat might actually happen?
It’s a terrible thing that we’re not joining the rest of the world in trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. A few communities—like New York City, Charleston, and Norfolk, Virginia—are doing something, but the feds are not involved at all. The towns that are involved right now are those that have no choice. In New York, 40,000 people live below three feet. Charleston is low. The communities that are trying to do something are doing so because they’re forced to. In the future, the same thing will happen to other communities. But in terms of federal response, I am completely unoptimistic.

"Money rules the world. I see no common sense, no real concern for the future."

Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m hoping that this storm shows us that the first step in the southeastern US, and probably in much of the rest of country, is to stop “urban renewal” in response to storms. Urban renewal is why North Carolina and South Carolina have such densely populated shorelines. Every time there’s a storm, we come back and take the attitude that we are courageous and not turned off by nature, and we will rebuild, by god, and we will rebuild better than ever. That’s what happens continuously.

If we do that after this storm, we are in real trouble. We’ll get rid of mom-and-pop cottages and replace them with McMansions. It doesn’t make any sense, except for greed, except for money.

It sounds like greed is a big problem here.
Money rules the world. I see no common sense, no real concern for the future. There has been very short-term thinking guiding the development of the coasts. There’s been no concern for environmentally sound development, no concern for future storms.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Casey Williams is a writer covering environmental politics and culture based in Durham, North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.

Social image of a Greenpeace protest by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty.

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