Strategic Retreat

August 14, 2009

Damage from Hurricane IvanI’m tired, TIRED of hearing well-intentioned, well-educated, climate-change-believing folks say–four years later–that New Orleans and waterfront Biloxi shouldn’t be rebuilt.  I’m not tired of the conversation at the meta-level–in fact, I think it’s one we should be having more often and more rigorously.  But I am tired of the way in which it’s always framed–as if individual people should recognize that Katrina #2 is inevitable and voluntarily relocate elsewhere.

Regionally, the Mississippi Delta, the Pamlico-Albemarle Basin, and South Florida absolutely need to be in discussion about strategic retreat.  But strategic retreat cannot be an individual-level decision–it’s at least regional, maybe national.  It can only happen when public policies change; when we bring the externalities associated with climate change, natural disasters and eroding coastlines into the system.

The truth is that we are still incentivizing coastal development; we haven’t gotten anywhere close to creating a neutral policy that would allow rational individuals to make a long-term strategic decision without significantly acting against their own near-term interests.  The way the externalities add up right now, individuals will choose against strategic retreat every time.

That has to change.  For new developments on risky land, we need to make the risk-inclined pay a premium.  We need to make it expensive–tremendously so–to live and invest dangerously.  Or, better yet, we need to ban those developments altogether (but I’ll settle for incremental change).  And for the folks who are already there–we need to create a well-organized, thoughtful process with multiple options and a respectful timeline to help them move.

We’ve got to reverse the trend of having the poorest folks, the least-able-to-recover-and-rebuild folks, on the most vulnerable land.  And we’ve got to stop counting on natural disasters to be the catalyst for the conversation.



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