January 06, 2021

Cooperative Federalism: A Path to Proactive Managed Retreat

Manisha Patel and Allie Reilly

One of our most critical environmental, social, and economic challenges is how to manage and respond to the effects of climate change. An approach that has gained prominence in recent years as an effective solution to the crisis of rising sea levels and extreme weather events is managed retreat. It is “the purposeful, coordinated movement of people and assets out of harm’s way,” as described by A.R. Siders for the One Earth Science and Technology Initiative. A.R. Siders, Managed Retreat in the United States, One Earth 1, 216–25 (2019). Managed retreat is a departure from our current existence along the coast. It is the epitome of interdisciplinary climate adaptation, requiring expertise from urban planners to engineers, from finance experts to public engagement specialists, and from all levels of government. Implementing managed retreat is incredibly challenging—technically and legally. Decision-makers need to continue to provide basic services for their communities as they simultaneously change their shape and composition. They also face strong public, political, and financial inertia. How do we retreat? When is it appropriate to retreat? How do we pay for it? How do we begin to divest from coastal communities and infrastructure? How do we get people to agree to leave the coast? How do we help people to relocate who do not have the independent resources to do so? Where should retreating communities go? And, to the point of this article, how will the federal government and the states balance power to address these challenges?

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