At What Point? Managed Retreat Conference 2021 Recap

August 8, 2021


The Columbia Earth Institute hosted its second At What Point? Managed Retreat Conference on June 22nd, 2021, where hundreds of researchers, students, journalists, government officials, policy-makers, non-profit affiliates, and stakeholders engaged in discussions and presentations on climate adaptation, mitigation strategies for communities, and planned relocation/managed retreat. 

Managed retreat, the intentional movement of people, infrastructure or ecosystems away from risk, has increasingly been discussed in mainstream media as news coverage of climate change evolves. The conference brought together an interdisciplinary group to discuss what it means to be resettled as coastal communities are pushed back from rising sea levels. Attendees and presenters asked questions like: Where should people move? What government structures are needed? Who will pay for retreat? How can science and technology inform decision-making around relocation? How can we design equitable and just adaptation solutions? 

We took a look at some of the findings and presentations and summarized our key takeaways here.

Justice transitions & equity in resettlement

The opening plenary of the conference called for attendees to consider the structural inequality inherent in historical decision-making around land preservation. Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP Environment and Climate Justice Program, spoke about enabling just transitions by shifting planning priorities from infrastructure and economic activity towards communities, human health, and well-being. Many presenters at the four-day conference stressed the use of community outreach and engagement as a starting point in identifying inclusive relocation practices that forefronted the existing knowledge of flood-prone communities. Few, if any, precedents exist for successful managed retreat. As a result, many of the presentations that focused on equitable retreat surfaced more questions than answers. 

The relocation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe through the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project was used as a case study in multiple presentations. The relocation effort surfaced the complexity of relocation in the face of place-based identity and spirituality, the challenge of setting reasonable timelines, and the stickiness of distributing funding appropriately. It also threw a spotlight on the institutional harm that is sometimes perpetuated through conventional relocation, where managerial voices and economic metrics are often privileged above local cultural and societal needs.

Calls for shifts in funding and policy

A conference session titled Climate Migration and US Federal Policy gathered grassroots organizers, national advocates, scholars, and federal officials, who offered multidisciplinary insights on current and future policy. Commentators noted that federal/state funding trickles down to local communities and that ensuring that resources are utilized for their intended purposes can be a challenge locally. Several panelists also noted that misalignment in criteria and timelines for different funding programs can lead to complications. For example, HUD programs such as Community Development Block Grants, often take income into account when prioritizing grant distribution, while FEMA often does not. They suggested that greater collaboration between government agencies could help address this misalignment. 

Swena Surminski (London School of Economics, Grantham Research Institute) presented principles to consider for designing a just climate relocation funding system. Some of these principles included ‘minimizing societal costs, pursuing inter-generational equity, integrating funding with broader sustainable development objectives and ensuring a high degree of transparency and accountability for the use of public funds.’ 

Knowledge-sharing & data transparency

Paul Gallay (Riverkeeper, Columbia Earth Institute), noted that communities considering retreat require a clear understanding of the absence or presence of viable alternatives, which in turn requires sufficient information. Many of the presenters called for greater transparency, better knowledge-sharing, and data access in their sessions – and a few presented case studies, toolkits,and datasets that can be utilized for decision-making going forward. Here are a few of the resources we found informative from the conference: 

  • Urban Institute – A Federal Policy and Climate Migration Briefing for Federal Executive and Legislative Officials (here)
  • Georgetown Climate – Managed Retreat Toolkit (here)
  • Isle de Jean Charles Tribe & Tribal Council et. al. –  A Community Field Guide to Engagement, Resilience, and Resettlement: Community regeneration in the face of environmental and developmental pressures (here)

This conference was attended by our GIS Analyst Sophia Clavel. Have a question about our virtual conference experience or a suggestion of one we should attend next? Send us an email, we'd love to hear from you! 


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