Rural Dimensions of Adaptation and Managed Retreat

Leader: Kim Knowlton
Wednesday, November 28, 2:30pm – 4:00pm

About the Readings

Climate Change Impacts in the United States, Chapter 14: Rural Communities
Hales and Hohenstein, 2014

19% of the U.S. population lives in rural communities. This chapter takes a close look at the climate adaptation challenges likely to face these communities in the next century. Their geographic isolation, along with their dependence on economic drivers like agriculture, forestry, and tourism, increases their vulnerability to negative climate change impacts. Rural governments must also often anticipate and plan for this risk with limited locally available financial resources and institutional capacity. In an effort to improve rural communities’ response to climate change, Hales and Hohenstein advocate for engaging residents early on in decision-making processes and cooperating with stakeholders from across federal, state, and local governments.

Migration induced by sea-level rise could reshape the US population landscape.
Hauer, 2017, Nature Climate Change

This paper looks closely at the existing discussion around sea level rise and attempts to model where people are most likely to relocate. Through merging a series of population and migration-based projections, Hauer found that every state and 56% of counties in the U.S. could be affected in some way by the net migration associated with 1.8m of sea level rise. More specifically, Florida could lose more than 2.5 million residents while Texas could see nearly 1.5 million additional residents. Hauer uses his results to stress the importance of accounting for future, climate-driven migrations, particularly when considering things like disaster management, transportation infrastructure, and land use decisions.

Discussion Summary

Access to Information
As stated in the reading by Hales and Hohenstein (2014), the impacts of climate change on rural communities will progressively increase in the coming century, shifting where economic activities like agriculture and forestry can occur. Compared to their urban counterparts, these communities can have far less access to the information and the resources that they need to adequately prepare for and respond to climate change risks. On one hand, those who work in agriculture may know what is happening because they see the impacts of climate change within their daily work. At the same time, the language around climate change can be perceived by many individuals in rural, conservative communities as overtly political. The framing of adaptation measures, including managed retreat, thus becomes an exceptionally sensitive and difficult task.

Why Retreat?
Hauer (2017) uses a set of assumptions to approximate where the US population will relocate as a result of sea level rise. While critics note that he did not account for larger drivers of migration, including political turmoil and the state of the economy, as systematically as he should have, the question that he was asking is still important. The social cohesion of an area can have resounding implications on residents’ willingness to move. For example, in Breezy Point a strong kin network in the neighborhood led to the community being generally offended by the idea of managed retreat. In comparison, the community of Oakwood Beach in Staten Island was newer and far more receptive to a buyout structure. The tight-knit nature of many rural communities may, in this way, create additional obstacles when responding to the impacts of climate change. Certain residents of rural communities may not be able to act on information about the changing climate due to their participation in binding agricultural programs with companies like Monsanto.

The Logistics of Relocation
From a policy and urban planning perspective, it is important to think about where people will go and how they will find employment. The changing climate will disadvantage those who are not able to afford or maintain their standard of living should they have to move. Modern rural populations are generally older, less affluent, and less educated than urban populations, and the majority of relocation funding comes from governmental bodies like FEMA after a disaster has struck. One option may be to take advantage of places already built to house a large number of people, like cities that are currently half-inhabited.

Questions for Consideration

  • Where will people go in light of changed climate conditions, and how can we help prepare communities to respond to these relocation patterns?
  • When interacting with someone who doesn’t know about the science of climate change, is there an obligation to drive the point home at the risk of alienating that individual?
  • Who gets to decide what does and does not qualify as a climate change migration?
  • What are the climate impacts associated with the process of managed retreat?
  • How does climate change threaten and impact the mental health of people in rural communities?
  • Are we overlooking the climate adaptation needs of rural communities or does their relatively smaller population mean that we should allocate our resources and attention accordingly?