managed retreat

Five local approaches to climigration

Every community facing climigration has its own story to tell. Every relocation is different because the people affected and the places they might move to (and from) have unique cultures, needs, and challenges. Still, we believe as communities seriously consider managed retreat, or undertake it, they can learn from the successes and obstacles of others. To facilitate peer-to-peer learning and to incentivize experimental efforts to try new ways to approach this challenge, the Climigration Network put out an RFP last summer in search of concept-level proposals for innovative community-led projects on managed retreat. After reviewing the applications, five teams were each awarded $7,500 to develop their proposals.

Here, we are glad to highlight the teams that received the awards and their innovative approaches. The five winners are situated across the United States, and work across a range of fields, including human rights, applied theater, community advocacy, grassroots organizing, and citizen science. Their approaches are creative, instructive, and uniquely influenced by their local context. Each project focuses on using the award to complete one or two small but pivotal steps in a larger vision, positioning them for further support and engagement.

The 2018 Climigration Awardees are:

  • The Alaska Institute for Justice - Alaska Native communities working together to develop community-led relocation guidelines to protect their human rights.

  • The Anthropocene Alliance - Resident leaders in seven flood-prone, marginalized communities in TX, FL, LA, NY, CT, and VA are exploring ways to discuss managed retreat with their neighbors.

  • The Lowlander Center - Building the space for a dialogue between Bayou-Lowlands “sending communities” and inland-high ground “receiving communities” in Louisiana.

  • The Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance - Convening a community-wide conversation about managed retreat in the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire.

  • UNH PowerPlay - Scientists, experts in technical assistance and outreach, and professional actors developing an interactive applied theater workshop to help improve communication and understanding with communities facing managed retreat.

Keep reading to learn more about each project!

Courtesy of Alaska Institute for Justice.

Courtesy of Alaska Institute for Justice.

Alaska Institute for Justice

For the last fourteen years, the Alaska Institute for Justice has focused on protecting the human rights of Alaskans, including immigrants, refugees, human trafficking victims, and Alaska Native communities. The Alaska Institute for Justice houses three programs: Alaska Immigration Justice Project, the only non-profit program providing legal services to Alaska’s immigrant and refugee communities; Language Interpreter Center, training bilingual Alaskans to work as professional interpreters and translators for the legal, medical and social service community; and Research and Policy Institute, working with Alaska Native communities on climate adaptation strategies.

The Climigration Network award helped the Institute work with five Alaskan Native communities to develop community-led relocation guidelines based in human rights protections. Part of this tool focuses on community-based environmental monitoring and analyzing policy level barriers to implementing community-based retreat.

AIJ used the award to compensate the Alaskan Native community residents who are working on the guidelines for their valuable time and expertise. Reflecting on the work accomplished with the award, Robin Bronen, the AIJ’s executive director, writes, “the process to create a human-rights based framework to respond to climate-forced relocation is extraordinarily complicated, and requires deep trust to engage with people about losing the places they love and call home.” Additional funding is needed so AIJ can continue to develop these guidelines. By developing a human rights-based approach to community-led coastal retreat, AIJ is developing and implementing a model that can be used by other U.S. communities that are no longer able to stay in the places they call home.

Citizen science in action. Courtesy of New Hampshire Sea Grant.

Citizen science in action. Courtesy of New Hampshire Sea Grant.

New Hampshire Sea Grant and PowerPlay Interactive Development

Collaborators from three different units housed at the University of New Hampshire: New Hampshire Sea Grant; the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space (EOS); and PowerPlay Interactive Development teamed up to apply for the Climigration Network Award. Sea Grant is a federal-university partnership supporting coastal and marine research, extension, outreach and education; EOS is a high level research unit focused on topics including climate; and PowerPlay uses applied theater as an interactive tool to stimulate professional education and community engagement.

For the award, the team worked together to develop an applied theater workshop focused on managed retreat. The first phase was dedicated to research: gathering the unique points of view, frustrations, concerns, tensions, fears, and general behaviors of various stakeholders engaged in conversations around coastal adaptation and managed retreat. With their findings, the team crafted a dramatic scenario featuring the perspectives of three archetypal roles — scientist, property owner, and policymaker. These points of view formed the core of an interactive workshop. In January of 2019, the team piloted the workshop with the New Hampshire Coastal Adaptation Workgroup (NHCAW), a coalition of 24 organizations providing technical assistance in the state’s coastal communities, and gathered additional reactions and input. The session allowed participants to question the characters, and revise and revisit dramatized interactions in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of a complex issue, while also building empathy across various perspectives.

The next phase of the project includes introducing other local and regional audiences to the inaugural version of the workshop while seeking funding to further develop, formalize, deliver, and evaluate the end product. The overall goal of the effort is to address the limits of technical information-based approaches by elevating and exposing the social, psychological, and emotional dynamics inherent to community conversations about managed retreat.

Point au Chien gathering. Credit Alessandra Jerolleman.

Point au Chien gathering. Credit Alessandra Jerolleman.

Lowlander Center

Based in Louisiana, non-profit Lowlander Center supports and builds resiliency among all those living in lowland areas of the United States. With a variety of ongoing research projects, political engagements, and community collaborations, the Center has been particularly active in Isle de Jean Charles, a coastal Louisiana area that has lost up to 98% of its land mass in the last half-century due to erosion and rising seas. It is also home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, at least for now, as they begin to formally retreat after receiving state funds in 2016 to resettle.

Lowlander Center used its Climigration Network grant funding to convene key stakeholders to develop the Dialogue Series’ pilot workshops: a facilitated discussion between displaced and receiving communities in Louisiana, designed to help understand what makes for successful emplacement. These will consist of three 2-day workshops among lowland and inland community leaders, designed to help sketch out a replicable and scalable framework for a dialogue series on lowland-inland community migration. The workshops will use a Participatory Action Research approach, with an emphasis on being co-designed with the community, and guided by non-partisan mediators.

The next step will be to focus on inland communities and their capacity to receive new residents. Many of the inland communities are challenged by a variety of public health issues including failing infrastructure. As dialogues take place, decreasing vulnerabilities will be addressed while increasing the capacity of both the coastal and inland communities. Conversations have started within watersheds, connecting people in dialogue who are already connected through water.

Runner-up in the “Weather” category of SHEA’s 2016 photo contest. Photo by Ronald Grant, courtesy of SHEA.

Runner-up in the “Weather” category of SHEA’s 2016 photo contest. Photo by Ronald Grant, courtesy of SHEA.

Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance

Started as a gathering of concerned citizens in 2013, the Seabrook-Hamptons Estuary Alliance (SHEA) has grown organically into a dynamic non-profit organization that shares resources and gathers information regarding coastal preservation and resiliency. Their namesake 5,000-acre salt marsh serves many vital ecological roles, and the Alliance seeks to help property owners and town officials learn about and protect the estuary, and to cope with more frequent and intense flooding throughout the estuary. Their awarded project seeks to bring retreat, along with other adaptation options, more explicitly into the local planning discourse. Through a consensus-building process, SHEA plans to bring a spectrum of stakeholders together to better understand their perspectives on retreat, and identify opportunities for flood management strategies where everyone benefits. 

The Climigration Award enabled SHEA to hire an independent consultant to conduct a Situation Assessment — a review of the knowns and unknowns regarding flood vulnerability and impacts. The Assessment also aimed to gather key stakeholders together to help understand the flooding threats in the area. Compiling the assessment showed how crucial it is that Hampton be better prepared for future flooding, and that related projects be implemented with careful coordination. A Coastal Hazards Adaptation Team, with representatives from most Town boards and commissions, was formed and has met monthly since January, 2019 to help address these dire needs. The Team’s work will include: developing maps to highlight current and future vulnerable neighborhoods and facilities; reviewing case histories of adaptation strategies from other coastal communities; helping to identify appropriate adaptation strategies, including managed retreat, and evaluate their pros and cons, for representative neighborhoods and/or infrastructure; and communicating the range of adaptation options to residents and municipal officials.

A community voice in Louisiana. Courtesy of Anthropocene Alliance.

A community voice in Louisiana. Courtesy of Anthropocene Alliance.

Anthropocene Alliance

Anthropocene Alliance (Aa) combats climate change and environmental abuse by building grassroots coalitions in the communities most adversely affected by both. They provide support and training to community leaders, and connect them to the government agencies, nonprofit programs and pro bono experts who can help them the most.

In 2017, they launched Higher Ground, the largest flood survivor organization in the U.S., representing a network of 42 communities, from 20 U.S. states. Members have been impacted by hurricanes Katrina, Matthew, Sandy, Florence, Irma, and Harvey, and by unnamed flooding events such as those currently affecting large swathes of the midwest. Half the groups they work with represent low-income and communities of color. With Aa’s help they are matched with pro bono guidance in hydrology, floodplain management, citizen weather monitoring, insurance, case management, community planning, architecture, law, and legislation.

Their Climigration Network award enabled seven community leaders from around the U.S. to start the difficult discussion around managed retreat with their neighbors. They met with residents and conducted surveys. The research revealed the deep level of concern that residents have about their future. For example, one respondent simply said, “I am concerned that New Orleans will not exist in the very near future.” The surveys also revealed key tensions around managed retreat. One respondent said, “most of the people who live in these areas have been here their whole lives. Their homes aren't just buildings, they are a part of who they are.” In addition to providing feedback and insights through the surveys, the residents asked for more education around adaptation options, including managed retreat.

Thanks to a small grant from the American Geophysical Union, the seven community leaders are continuing their discussions with residents in 2019. Meanwhile, Aa continues expanding its network to assist impacted communities. A couple recent initiatives include recruiting a pro bono environmental engineer to help interested communities map out priority neighborhoods for managed retreat, and bringing in a legal team to help them understand the legal and legislative barriers and opportunities to climigration.

Weighing the Social Costs of Retreat

Much of the discussion around managed retreat focuses on the anticipation and immediate aftermath of disasters, weighing the difficult choices residents make about whether to stay or leave. But given the far-reaching impacts of that choice, it can be difficult to understand how it changes the lives of those after they make it.

Researchers like Drs. Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer study the community resilience of those affected by home buyout programs. Along with their colleagues, they have published multiple papers focusing on the spectrum of households and populations affected by retreat: those staying, leaving, and still deciding. In particular, a few of their papers focus on the community experience of buyouts that took place within Staten Island, New York after Superstorm Sandy, from the perspectives of both those who left and stayed.

In one paper published in Environmental Hazards, Binder and her collaborators from the University of Hawaii assessed buyout impacts across three different Staten Island communities, three years after Sandy: Oakwood (a community that rejected retreat), Oakwood Beach (which chose to relocate) and Rockaway Park (which rebuilt in situ). Focusing on three key recovery indicators — social capital, place attachment, and perceived risk — the research found that, a few years after relocating, those who chose to retreat can face worse health and social outcomes than those who chose to stay. In summary, “it is uncertain whether this perceived [lowered risk of future hazards] offsets psycho-social losses such as decreased place attachment and bonding social capital. Taken together, these findings raise important questions about the overall efficacy of home buyout programs, highlighting long-term social costs and the potential implications of losses in social and place-based attachments on recovery and social resilience.”

Below, Drs. Greer and Binder explain how certain aspects of federal buyout policy can undermine social outcomes for those who choose to make this difficult decision. Research like this, that points to the weaknesses of buyout policy, is necessary for the federal program to improve and proactively address the costs of retreat.

Counting the cost: The social and psychological implications of relocation and retreat

Sherri Brokopp Binder, PhD and Alex Greer, PhD

Every time a major natural disaster hits the US, we are reminded of how many of us live in areas that are fundamentally hazardous. Major storm events like Katrina, Sandy and many others have raised the national consciousness around these vulnerabilities, as have projections related to the current and future impacts of sea level rise in densely populated coastal areas. Home buyout programs, which are designed to reduce vulnerability by permanently relocating residents away from areas considered to be at risk of future disaster events, are generally funded by the federal government, though they are managed and implemented locally, typically through a state or county agency. The logic behind buyouts is deceptively simple: in areas where people and property are at risk for repeated or chronic disasters, buyouts allow participating residents to sell their at-risk homes to the government — hopefully, they can then relocate to new, safer communities. The purchased properties are then ideally converted into open space, thereby avoiding any future losses to those residents and providing a natural buffer for future events.

Look a little closer, however, and it soon becomes clear that things are not so simple. Risks associated with hazards are constantly being weighed against investment in and attachment to place, among other factors. In our recent research on a home buyout program implemented after Hurricane Sandy, for example, residents who had established their homes and built their lives in the areas devastated by the storm found the thought of relocating to be enormously disruptive and devastating, even if it seemed like the best available option.

Our research on buyouts has been guided by one overarching question: Are residents better off for having participated in buyout programs? Our findings suggest that, even several years after a disaster, buyout participants fare worse than residents in communities that choose to rebuild on indicators including social capital and place attachment. These findings are significant, as they represent losses in place-based ties and social support systems that disaster survivors typically rely on to cope with disaster impacts and navigate recovery.

Our work, and that of other scholars who have studied buyouts and relocation, has found that relocation is associated with a suite of of losses, including losses in homeownership, employment, income, access to healthcare, and physical and mental health. For example, federal policy requires buyout participants to receive fair, pre-storm market value for their homes, though this does not necessarily protect households from experiencing net losses in weath. Federal policy prohibits the duplication of benefits for disaster survivors, which is intended to avoid repeated government payments for repairs or recovery costs. While this approach makes good sense in many disaster contexts, buyout participants often use disaster aid to rebuild their disaster damaged home while they wait for the buyout to be implemented (a process that can take a year or more, during which time residents exhaust their alternative housing options). The costs of these repairs are later deducted off of the sale price of their home, leaving them with reduced capital when finding a new, post-buyout home. When combined with market and development forces that make higher risk homes relatively more affordable, this can leave buyout participants unable to purchase a comparable home in a comparable community.

These losses, in turn, directly impact residents’ options when choosing their post-buyout homes, and may lead to significant compromises. Homeowners who participated in the post-Sandy buyout in New York, for example, were rarely able to purchase a comparable home in a similar community. Instead, they were left to choose among several less than ideal options; moving to an area that was affordable but far from their critical social networks (family, close friends, social groups); buying a house they couldn’t afford in order to stay near their original community; or moving to a neighborhood that was less desirable socially (such as an area with higher crime rates) in order to buy an affordable home near their original community. All of these options carry social and psychological costs that extend far beyond the implementation of the buyout program.

So, are residents better off for having participated in buyout programs? At this point, the answer to this question is unclear at best. Our research has found buyouts to be associated with a suite of negative consequences for participating households and communities, including losses in homeownership, employment, income, access to healthcare, physical and mental health, and social and place attachments. Other scholars have found similar results when studying relocation programs. While studies have raised a number of concerns about buyouts and relocations as they are currently conceived, we continue to implement such programs nationwide. At present, there are over 40 buyout programs underway in the U.S., several active relocations due to sea level rise, and many other communities facing the prospect of relocation or managed retreat. To ensure the best possible outcomes for these communities and those that will face similar decisions in the future, more research is needed to ensure that the social costs of relocation are accounted for within buyout policy and practice.

For the papers referenced by Brokopp Binder and Greer, see below:

Sherri Brokopp Binder and Alex Greer (2016): “The Devil Is in the Details: Linking Home Buyout Policy, Practice, and Experience After Hurricane Sandy”, Politics and Governance, Volume 4, Issue 4, p. 97–106.

Sherri B. Binder, John P. Barile, Charlene K. Baker & Bethann Kulp (2018): “Home buyouts and household recovery: neighborhood differences three years after Hurricane Sandy”, Environmental Hazards

Summer Reading: 8 Select Climigration Voices

Staying up to date with the latest news and thoughts about managed retreat is difficult. To help individuals, communities, and policy makers find the most current reporting and scholarship on managed retreat, curates two lists in its News and Reports sections. The pieces gathered on these pages since 2016 have included some outstanding work by journalists and authors who focus their work on climigration, whether from the climate desk, their office in the economics department, or a law firm.

We have highlighted a few authors and one or more of their hallmark contributions below. Please take a look and let us know who we are missing!

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The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World (2017)

By Jeff Goodell, contributing editor for Rolling Stone. @jeffgoodell

“We are already engineering the Earth’s operating system by dumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into it every year. We’re just doing it badly. Why not get good at it?” - The Water Will Come

Within the next century of sea level rise, massive migration will occur along the globe’s coasts. The Water Will Come peels out the scientific and personal implications of this through reporting from twelve different countries.

You can order The Water Will Come through Little, Brown and Company, Amazon, or at your local bookstore via Indiebound.

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Christopher Flavelle

Covers climate change and adaptation policy for Bloomberg. @cflav

America’s Last-Ditch Climate Strategy of Retreat Isn’t Going So Well (Bloomberg News, May 2, 2018). The glacial pace of Sidney, NY’s retreat is making some homeowners jump the gun.

The Jersey Shore Would Rather Fight Flooding with Walls than Retreat (Bloomberg Businessweek, May 4, 2017). As local officials push for retreat, some residents are pushing back.

Moody's Warns Cities to Address Climate Risks or Face Downgrades (Bloomberg News, November 29, 2017). Moody’s, one of the Big Three credit rating agencies, will begin to evaluate credit ratings for cities based on climate change preparedness, signaling massive implications for cities trying to balance the books on retreat as an adaptation measures.

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Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (2018)

By Elizabeth Rush, an author and photographer currently teaching creative nonfiction at Brown University. @elizabetharush

“… My faith in natural processes, in the intricate systems of reciprocity that I was raised to believe keep nature from tilting out of balance, is lost. Gnawing uncertainty takes its place." - Rising

Visiting coastal cities in the US where climate change has wrought catastrophic damage, Rush relates the stories of those facing the life-changing choice of whether to leave or stay.

You can order Rising through Milkweed,  Amazon, or at your local bookstore via Indiebound.

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Retreat from a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change (2016)

By Orrin H. Pilkey, Linda Pilkey-Jarvis, and Keith C. Pilkey.

Orrin is a professor of geology and earth science at Duke University. Linda is the Preparedness Section Manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology. Keith is an Administrative Law Judge for the Social Security Administration.

"Like it or not, we will retreat from most of the world’s nonurban shorelines in the not very distant future. Our retreat options can be characterized as either difficult or catastrophic." - Retreat from a Rising Sea

Focusing on policy, Retreat from a Rising Sea details the urban impacts of rising sea levels, and proposes avenues for meeting the needs of the most vulnerable communities.

You can order Retreat from a Rising Sea through Columbia University Press and Amazon.

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liz koslov

Assistant Professor of Justice and the Environment at UCLA Luskin School of Public Policy. @LizKoslov

"Although retreat, often called 'managed retreat,' remains on the fringes of conversations about climate change adaptation, people throughout the world are already moving away from the water out of fear or necessity... I contrast dominant official representations of retreat as marginal, unpopular, and infeasible with existing cases of collective movement away from rising waters that demonstrate just the opposite." - The Case for Retreat

Koslov’s upcoming book based on her dissertation, Retreat: Moving to Higher Ground in a Climate-Changed City, is an ethnographic account of communities relocating due to climate change. Her 2016 paper for Public Culture, “The Case for Retreat”, argued that retreat may actually be distinguished from forced and climate-induced relocation, as something voluntary and community oriented.


Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (2011)

By Christine Shearer, energy researcher and analyst at Coal Swarm. @ChristineSheare

“Janet walked me toward the shoreline and told me Kivalina residents had been advised not to talk about the lawsuit. Great, I thought, wondering why I was there. But as Janet showed me the shrinking coastline and rapidly eroding bank, I realized the real issue for Kivalina is not necessarily the lawsuit. It is the relocation.” - Kivalina

Before the Alaskan Native community of Kivalina began its managed retreat, it was in the midst of a legal battle over fossil fuel companies’ impact on their homeland. This book delves into the history of misinformation around climate change and its impacts that complicate retreat’s discourse today, in Kivalina and generally.

You can order Kivalina: A Climate Change Story through Haymarket Books, Amazon, or at your local bookstore through Indiebound.

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The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change: United States and International Aspects (2012)

Edited by Katrina Fischer Kuh, Professor of Environmental Law at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, and Michael B. Gerrard, Director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law and professor at Columbia Law School. @MichaelGerrard

“…There is now a growing realization that both mitigation and adaptation must be pursued vigorously. Society barely has the resources today to cope with the climate change that is already occurring … [This book] describes proposals to make the laws that deal with adaptation more rational and comprehensive.” - The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change

This book attempts a comprehensive look at the ways legal systems worldwide are trying to cope with climate change, and the difficulties of coordinating adaptation within a fractured legal approach to the issue. While not limited to the legalities of managed retreat, this text is a must-read for those interested in legal precedents for adaptation policies.

You can order The Law of Adaptation to Climate Change through the American Bar Association and Amazon.

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Managed retreat as a response to natural hazard risk (2017)

Published in Nature Climate Change, March 2017 by Miyuki Hino, Christopher B. Field and Katharine J. Mach.

Hino is a Ph.D. candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University; Field is the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University; Mach is a Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University. @chrfield @katharine_mach

"The model establishes a foundation for understanding and anticipating case-specific complexities. It can be used to unpack the landscape of managed retreat and evaluate its potential future applications." - Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk

This study evaluates the drivers, barriers, and outcomes of 27 cases of managed retreat in 22 countries, including the relocation of approximately 1.3 million people. The researchers developed a four quadrant model to organize cases based on who benefited from and who initiated retreat.

You can purchase the piece in Nature and read the New Yorker's coverage of the study here.

Know any great pieces or authors covering managed retreat?

Let us know!

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Financing Risk and Betting on Prevention

How credit agencies are shifting the perspective on cities' proactive climate change initiatives

By Amelia Taylor-Hochberg, CBI Climigration Intern

It shouldn’t be surprising, but it bears stating outright: retreat is expensive. In the ongoing case of America’s “first climate refugees,” resettling the 99 remaining Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native Americans on Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles is slated to cost $48 million. Shockingly, however, the cost of doing nothing could likely be even higher, in the form of ever-rising flood insurance payments and rebuilding costly infrastructure after more frequent (and violent) natural disasters.

It’s a familiar struggle, prevalent in industries like healthcare and criminal justice — how to weigh costs of prevention against costs of future, post-disruption reconstruction. Even when it’s shown that preventative measures can result in lower costs than reactive ones, doling out money to prevent something from happening just feels more painful than the same amount of money spent on fixing something. And with retreat, it can feel like only a loss — of land, community and a tax base. But recently, a sea change in the way cities are able to fund their resiliency strategies is gradually emerging.

CBI has covered a variety of methods for financing retreat strategies before, both standard and more creative. But at the end of 2017, Moody’s Investor Service, one of the “big three” credit rating agencies, announced a major change to the way it evaluates state and local bonds, which stands to make a huge impact on retreat financing. According to a report issued in November, Moody’s said it would incorporate local climate change mitigation strategies into its ratings for cities — so if a coastal city isn’t doing anything in response to imminent flooding threats brought on by climate change, their credit rating could suffer, and interest rates could increase.

One of Moody’s managing directors, Lenny Jones, told Bloomberg, "What we want people to realize is: If you’re exposed, we know that. We’re going to ask questions about what you’re doing to mitigate that exposure... That’s taken into your credit ratings." Here’s a tidbit direct from the Moody’s report:

Credit risks resulting from climate change are embedded in our existing approach to analyzing the key credit factors in our methodologies. Our analysis of economic strength and diversity, which signals the speed with which an economy may recover, captures climate-driven credit risks such as economic disruption, physical damage, health and public safety, and population displacement.

Moody’s isn’t the only one of the “Big Three” credit rating agencies taking note of climate change. In October 2017, just a month before Moody’s published its report, Standard & Poor issued a FAQ also explicitly addressing the credit impacts of climate change: “In addition to episodic event risk from natural disasters, S&P Global Ratings believes it is important to consider the current long-term credit implications of the physical impact of climate change that municipal debt issuers must contend with.” And a September 2015 report from Fitch Group points directly to the problem of reactive, vs. preventative, measures when it comes to climate change: “local governments that respond hesitantly to climate change may face higher mitigation costs and potentially much higher disaster recovery costs in the future, particularly should federal support mechanisms decrease over time.”

This could really ratchet up the pressure on cities’ climate-planning initiatives, but how precisely Moody’s evaluates a municipality’s credit worthiness based on such initiatives (or lack thereof) is still not public knowledge. At the very least, this could become a new standard for credit rating companies, as more investors demand to know how climate change impacts are being handled.

But in terms of evaluating specific climate resiliency strategies, how Moody’s will treat retreat is not yet certain — it firstly wants to see that a plan, any plan, is in place. Moody’s 21 page report makes no explicit mention of planning for “retreat”, but does lay out how population displacement and relocation as a result of climate shocks can adversely affect local economies.

John A. Miller, a water resources engineer who has worked on the 2017 reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program and now deals in floodplain management policy, doesn’t think retreat will be encouraged in the credit evaluations: “From a municipal credit rating standpoint, there’s more interest in the adaptation aspect of climate change,” he told CBI in a phone interview. “Their core interest, at the end of the day, is getting paid back — so whatever provides the safest economic returns will be most attractive. It’s harder to balance the books like that with retreat. “Credit rating companies are very myopic,” Miller said. “What they really look at is what can affect revenue — from a municipal standpoint, they want to make sure they get paid back. They only consider things that can affect that, and not necessarily the final horizon of climate change impacts.”

Jenna deAngelo, a program manager at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, pointed out that this announcement could also impact how much local governments rely on state and federal aid. As climate change impacts persist and intensify, the aid available is stressed even more, and could potentially run out — FEMA’s flood insurance program is already billions of dollars in debt. DeAngelo told CBI over email, “it’s so important for municipalities to evaluate their own source revenues and how they can put in place policies and systems that will improve their fiscal health.” It’s also up to Moody’s to be critical when evaluating responses to climate change: is a city simultaneously building a floodwall in one area while building new housing within the floodplain of another?

Moody’s announcement could also have political ramifications. In areas that refuse to acknowledge climate change at all, it may be politically disadvantageous (or at least require a lot of euphemisms) to try to push certain initiatives in order to meet Moody’s criteria. There are still many unknowns, but by putting climate change at the forefront of credit rating systems, the money is bound to talk about retreat sometime soon.

Special thanks to Jenna deAngelo at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy for her expertise and commentary in contribution to this post.

Creative Financing for Managed Retreat

By Amelia Taylor-Hochberg, CBI Climigration Intern

How Novel Financing Models Could Help Make Managed Retreat More Manageable

When considering migrating entire communities out of natural hazard risk areas, homeowners and local governments deal with a whole new can of financial worms. Governments may lack the funds necessary to buy out all needy areas, and banks aren’t attracted to assets that will literally and figuratively be underwater. Homeowners are between a rock and a hard place: as property values fall due to increasing risks, they may not be able to sell at a price that allows them to buy elsewhere.

This difficult subject has been the focus of CBI’s ongoing webinar series, “Funding & Financing Coastal Retreat”. The latest webinar, held on October 25, focused on creative mechanisms from within the private and public spheres to finance retreat due to climate change. In contrast to the federal government’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, where homeowners can voluntarily seek buyouts with FEMA money (post-disaster), these strategies can be more proactively employed to reduce risk in a wider variety of cases.

A range of financial tools were discussed in the webinar, from more traditional options, like municipal green bonds, to emerging models, like social impact bonds and catastrophe bonds. Green bonds have been used by municipalities and city agencies to finance sustainability projects like infrastructure upgrades, but have not yet been used to finance managed retreat. The more novel solutions for supporting sustainability and climate resilience work — such as catastrophe bonds, conservation mitigation credits, and social impact bonds — may be potential tools for managed retreat projects. However, using any financial tool requires a source of repayment to the investor(s). For managed retreat to access any of the financing tools discussed, an economic value has to be placed on the remediated land, and a repayment source must be identified.

One untested but intriguing avenue brought up by Jenna deAngelo, program manager at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, brought up one intriguing avenue to minimize federal government involvement and taxpayer risk in coastal retreat buyouts: mortgage contingent loans. With these loans, at-risk homeowners cede their property to the government, which then issues them a commercial loan tied to the value of their home, rather than their income. The homeowner can then use the loan to buy another property elsewhere. The government now holds the mortgage to the home, and can sell it on the commercial market, transferring risk from the taxpayer to the private market. If the occupant moves out of the house or passes away, the government retains the net equity and can sell the house and pay off the loan. Alternatively, the government could keep the house and turn it into public housing, as selling it could mean a loss, depending on the real estate market. This possibility in turn brought up a larger discussion of equity issues surrounding climate-related displacement, and how financial support of communities is related to their socioeconomic makeup.

Although these kinds of loans haven’t been tried before within managed retreat strategies, they could offer an innovative approach to financing risky futures, compared to the context of federal funding. Mark Skidmore, professor in Government Finance and Policy at Michigan State University, as well as the Director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, pointed out that current federal disaster assistance programs are not risk-adjusted to where they are actually applied — so those living in risky areas (and the state and local governments) have no incentive to take risk-reducing precautions. This ultimately encourages people to to stay in risky areas, rather than seeking safer (both financially and environmentally) land elsewhere.

To learn more about creative financing strategies for managed retreat, you can watch the entire webinar here. Outlines from the featured presentations, as well as cited resources, can be found here. The webinar was hosted by CBI’s Bennett Brooks and Osamu Kumasaka.

Jenna DeAngelo is a program manager at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Prior to joining the Lincoln Institute, Jenna was a senior benefits administration analyst at Xerox Business Services and a human resources analyst at the MBTA. Jenna earned her B.S. in Economics and M.S. in Urban and Regional Policy, both from Northeastern University.

Katie Grace Deane is associate director of research and field development at the Center for Community Investment. Prior to joining the Center, she spent 7 years at the Initiative for Responsible Investment at the Harvard Kennedy School where she led research on public policy and impact investment, sustainable investment trends, and place-based frameworks for community development. Katie began her career as a research analyst at the Tellus Institute, where she researched corporate sustainability performance indicators and the effects of university endowments on employment and the community. Katie has a BA from Williams College in Political Science with a Concentration in Leadership Studies, and is a member of the Miss Hall’s School Board of Trustees.

Mark Skidmore is Professor and Morris Chair in State and Local Government Finance and Policy at Michigan State University. He is also Director of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development (NCRCRD). Mark holds tenure system appointments in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics and Economics. He has served as a consultant on a range of issues including economic development, government public finance and policy, and price determination. Recent research areas include economics of the public sector, economic development, and the economics of natural disasters. He has published the results of his research in journals such as Economic Inquiry, Economics Letters, Journal of Urban Economics, National Tax Journal, and Public Choice. Much of Mark’s research and outreach focuses on public finance policy and the relationship between public finance policy and economic development.

Resistance and Retreat

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Damaged homes seen on Sunshine Key, Fla., in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

Since late August of this year, three hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Marie – have devastated parts of the southern United States and its territories.  In the face of the destruction wrought by these powerful storms, we have seen remarkable and heroic efforts by individuals, companies and non-profits, local governments, state governments, and the federal government to respond.  In each case, individuals have come to the aid of their neighbors and friends.  Businesses and companies have sought to throw their doors and wallets open to provide shelter, food, and rescue.  Governors have acted forcefully and with focus before, during, and after the storms. These storms have revealed the strong social networks and incredible importance of social capital in responding to devastating natural events such as these.[1] 

Resistance in the face of these natural threats is a powerful and compelling human response. On the one hand, it is a force for good: individuals stocking supplies, boarding, ready to batten down the hatches, survive the storm and, out of the wreckage, help themselves and their neighbors.  This is human resilience at its best.

Stories of individual resistance took center stage in news coverage, and were frequently framed as a difficult calculation which could only be made in the moment, based on personal risk tolerance and binding life circumstance. One intrepid Florida Keys resident stayed back to watch over his 50-foot sailboat along with his two dogs, despite the Governor of Florida’s orders. He survived Hurricane Irma dogs and all, and remarked:  "Climate change is nothing more than 'Shit happens,'" he said. "And this [storm] right here? Shit happens.”[2]

But resistance, no matter how stoic, does have its costs: during natural disaster events, it can put resistors at risk at the expense of first responders and others when they do not heed the call to evacuate. Over the long term, resistance can leave residents fighting to preserve the past. Resistance, while admirable in many ways, can distract from or preclude the possibility of planning for a future where retreat or relocation may better serve residents, their communities, and their nation.[3]

The last of the three recent storms – Marie – and the unfolding devastation it has wrecked on Puerto Rico, hints at the impacts of unmanaged retreat as tropical storms become more devastating.[4] It is possible that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans, especially those with means and family connections in the mainland, will move off the Island, draining it of the social capital, labor, and talent needed to rebuild, while simultaneously stressing communities and local governments dealing with unexpected large scale migration of US citizens to the mainland.[5]

What the last month illustrates is how important it is to consider the role of coastal retreat, both now and in the future, as one tool of many to preemptively limit the damages of natural disaster. This is most obvious in neighborhoods for which devastating flood damage has become routine in recent history.[6] Shortly after Harvey’s floodwaters began to recede, Congressman Jep Hensarling from Dallas got himself into trouble—and received a great deal of criticism—for stating that U.S. taxpayers should not have to pay for homes repeatedly flooded via federal flood insurance.  He was quoted as saying, “At some point, God is telling you to move.”[7]

While the Congressman perhaps lacked timing and tact in the face of ongoing suffering during early recovery, the difficult truth behind his statement will have to be taken up by communities in the months and years ahead as they are threatened by increasingly frequent, powerful storms.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's  Energy, Environment and Land Use  practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.

Patrick Field is Managing Director of CBI and Associate Director of the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. He leads CBI's Energy, Environment and Land Use practice. He often works with and between local, regional, state, and federal governments and is a dynamic trainer and lecturer, delivering curricula to professionals across sectors in the U.S. and globally.


[1] "HURRICANE IRMA:  Splinters, Cha Cha Cha and a 'rising seas thing’.” Adam Aton, E&E News reporter.

Published: Friday, September 15, 2017 in Climate Wire.

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Guidance on protecting people from disasters and environmental change through planned relocation.” The Brookings Institute, Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Published: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 in The Brookings Institute.

[4] “Does Harvey Represent a New Normal for Hurricanes?” Robinson Meyer.

Published: Tuesday, August 29, 2017 in The Atlantic.

[5]Mitigation induced by sea-level rise could reshape the US population landscape.Mathew E. Hauer.

Published: Monday, April 17, 2017 in

[6] “Amplification of Flood Frequencies with Local Sea Level Rise and Emerging Flood Regimes.” Maya K. Buchanan, Michael Oppenheimer, and Robert E. Kopp.

Published: June 2017 in Environmental Research Letters

[7] "GOP rep on paying for flood loss: ‘At some point, God is telling you to move’.” Julia Manchester.

Published: Thursday, September 21, 2017 in The Hill.


Making Sense of Drivers and Barriers to Managed Retreat

By: Kara Runsten, CBI Climigration Associate

Miyuki Hino’s study, “Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk,” published in Nature Climate Change, provides new insights to climigration research. In it, Hino and her coauthors study 27 instances of managed retreat and create a framework for understanding drivers and barriers to climigration in a range of contexts. They find that retreat has a high likelihood of occurring in what they term “Mutual Agreement” situations, where residents feel the risk of a hazard is unbearable and the benefits of retreat spread to the broader society. I had the opportunity to chat with Hino a few days ago both about her paper and its broader implications.

Managed Retreat is a Two-Party Negotiation

During the study, the researchers discovered that managed retreat is essentially a two-party negotiation between residents and an implementing body (e.g., a government entity). Mapping the cases based on the dynamics between the two parties produced a comprehensive picture that showed unique clusters representing different types of retreat (e.g., post-disaster voluntary relocation and isolated communities seeking relocation due to coastal erosion and flooding). This simple four-quadrant conceptual model represents a bird’s-eye view framework for understanding case-specific complexities. Key findings from each quadrant include:

  • Mutual Agreement: Retreat has a high likelihood of occurring because residents feel risk is unbearable and benefits of retreat accrue to broader society. Political will to implement retreat is high and the societal cost-benefit ratio justifies retreat. This dynamic corresponds to cases of post-disaster voluntary relocation.
  • Greater Good: Retreat has a moderate likelihood of occurring because benefits of retreat accrue to broader society, but residents feel the risk is bearable. Political will to implement retreat is high, and the societal cost-benefit ratio justifies relocation. This dynamic corresponds to cases of managed realignment and perhaps also some cases of mandatory resettlement.
  • Hunkered Down: Retreat has a low likelihood of occurring because residents feel the risk is bearable and benefits of retreat accrue only to residents. Political will to implement retreat is low and the societal cost-benefit ratio does not justify relocation. Although retreat is not usually initiated in these cases, some cases of managed resettlement may exhibit this dynamic.
  • Self-Reliance: Retreat has a moderate likelihood of occurring because residents feel the risk is unbearable, but benefits of retreat accrue only to residents. Political will to implement retreat is low and the societal cost-benefit ratio does not justify relocation. This dynamic corresponds to isolated communities seeking relocation.
Image from "Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk"  Nature Climate Change,  March 2017

Image from "Managed Retreat as a Response to Natural Hazard Risk" Nature Climate Change, March 2017

Appropriate policy methods to instigate retreat differ based on the quadrant in which a particular case is located. For example, “Greater Good” cases, where the implementing party is more excited about retreat than residents, require the government agency to develop incentives to convince residents to move. Embedding the effort to retreat in economic and community development projects is one way to attempt to change residents’ perceptions about retreat. For example, after a flash flood required relocation, a community in Australia developed an economic growth plan and strategies for incentivizing new commercial activities in the destination town. The general discourse there implied that staying in place was equivalent to being stuck in the past—moving on was the future.

Retreat can be the right choice

Informed by her research, Hino’s advice to communities experiencing repeat damage over time from coastal storms would emphasize that retreat isn’t always a negative option; there are many social, economic, and environmental reasons that can make it the right choice for people and communities. For example, the U.S. Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (categorized as “Mutual Agreement” in the model) uses government funding to purchase disaster-stricken homes from property owners who would like to reduce risks to their safety and their wallets by moving away from the coast. The properties are transformed into open space, providing a natural barrier that reduces flood risk for the rest of the community.

Local government should Stay tuneD-in and transparent

Hino also stresses that local governments should take into account residents’ perceived risks about both natural hazards and retreat when they plan for the future. Factors like the transparency of the planning process and the proposed relocation site can affect those perceptions, helping or hindering efforts to retreat.

She also highlights that an important yet understudied topic in this field are the conditions under which community members farther away from the coast feel they benefit from investments in retreat. Getting the larger community on board might expand policy options beyond buyouts of individual coastal homes.

As for buyouts, Hino points out the surprising divide between those looking at climigration through the lens of buyouts versus community relocation versus retreat. While they are slightly different points on the spectrum, she thinks there is no reason we can’t apply lessons across types. By doing that, we might find innovative ways to look at retreat in the future.


Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.


Dealing with Difficult Questions: What End-of-Life Planning Can Teach us about Managed Retreat

By: Kara Runsten, CBI Climigration Associate

One surprising connection made during the CBI-hosted workshop Community Transformation at the Water’s Edge in December 2015 was the possible similarities between managed retreat planning and end-of-life decision-making. While the two topics might seem quite different, there is much the climate change adaptation world can learn from physicians, nurses, patients, and families dealing with this most sensitive period of life transition.

Up to 80 percent of nursing home residents do not have documented treatment wishes in their medical records. This limited amount of dialogue and planning is common for difficult questions and mirrors the lack of conversation about managed retreat in coastal communities. Finding ways to assess the situation and facilitate conversation is essential to planning for the future. 

An article titled “Facilitating End-of-Life Decision-Making Strategies for Communicating and Assessing”[1] serves as an access point for comparison between the two issues. The article describes healthcare provider behaviors that facilitate or hinder end-of-life decision-making by patients and their families. Below, I summarize some main takeaways from the article and how they relate to coastal retreat.


The study found that opening the lines of communication early was one of the most important actions providers could take. This included:

1.     Being willing: The provider should open the lines of communication for end-of-life decision-making to occur. Patients whose providers shy away from the topic or delay starting the conversation often take on burdensome treatments and/or do not have enough time to prepare for death.

The same is true for managed retreat. Government and military officials, non-profit leaders, and local community leaders can create the space for the discussion and encourage communities to talk about this adaptation method as a credible option.

2.     Being clear: Providers who used clear words to identify the issue, such as “death” and “dying” were seen as more successful at facilitating end-of-life planning. Providers who used unclear language or euphemisms often led patients and families to hold onto false hope that delayed end-of-life planning.

Being clear about climate change and its implications for a community is important. Sensitive language is appropriate, and one should be cognizant of the impact of language choices that are culturally appropriate, but clarity and simplicity facilitates a productive discussion.

3.     Clarifying prognosis of goals and treatment: It is helpful to clarify the goals and expectations for treatment. Sugarcoating potential results of a treatment could lead patients and families to delay end-of-life planning.

Similarly, helping communities understand the risks they take on by staying in the same climate-vulnerable location as well as the various options for mitigating and/or adapting to these risks is important when planning for the future.


Successful providers were also experienced at assessing situations and using these assessments to spark the planning process. Key traits included:

1.     Recognizing deteriorating conditions: Successful providers were able to recognize when a patient’s phase of illness turns from chronic to terminal.

Community leaders may play this role in coastal communities. By recognizing a deteriorating condition and initiating dialogue, they can start building social capital within the community and begin this important conversation.

2.     Assessing understanding: Ensuring the patient and family members have a clear understanding of the full picture of the situation is important to facilitating dialogue about mortality.

Likewise, communities may be more likely to consider retreat as an option if they understand the nature of the changes they are facing, including the likely frequency of storms and the long-term effects of sea level rise. 

3.     Assessing end-of-life wishes: Successful providers ask patients directly about their wishes in an end-of-life situation.

Communities should talk openly about the nature of the transition they want. When, how, with whome, and under what circumstances the transition should take place are all issues that should not be imposed, and should align with community members' interests. Also, people should be invited to envision what they want to leave behind as a legacy - how they want the place they are leaving to be remembered and used or enjoyed in the future. 

4.     Assessing patient and family goals and expectations: Making sure everyone is on the same page aids planning and sets appropriate expectations.

Managing expectations, being open and transparent with everyone who might be affected, and thoroughly evaluating the benefits and costs of retreat as an option can help ensure such a strategy’s ultimate success. Unrealistic expectations can lead to surprises and unsuccessful implementation.

[1] Norton, S. A., & Talerico, K. A. (2000). Facilitating End-of-Life Decision-Making: Strategies for Communicating and Assessing. Journal of Gerontological Nursing, 26(9), 6-9.


Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.

Kara Runsten is a Master of City Planning candidate at MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning focusing on climate change adaptation, environmental dispute resolution, and stakeholder engagement.