What Would Strategic Relocation from Charleston Look Like?

Given these real and growing risks to human flourishing, there is—just barely—time to be wiser. Looking at this future is like “looking down that railroad track and seeing that little light,” according to seasoned scientist Bob Perry. When he talks to skeptics, he says, “We all know that train is coming. By gosh, we got to get off the track.” There are many things Charleston could do to be prepared for the moment that train rolls through. “We’re leaving and we’re not coming back,” says Perry. He’s talking about Charleston.

Imagine if planning for a carefully staged departure from the coastal edge of the Charleston region were actually happening. There would be an announcement that over the next 10 years, say, a host of incentives allowing for a modest but fair return on their investments in their homes would encourage people to move. These announcements would be accompanied by frank, clear disclosures about the high-risk nature of these areas.

Right now, it is very difficult for ordinary consumers to get access to good data about the risk profile of particular residential properties. The Town of East Hampton, New York, issued a report in mid-2022 making clear that, absent extraordinary and wildly expensive protective efforts, by 2070 the town would be transformed “into a series of islands” due to rapidly rising sea levels. It is difficult to imagine Charleston publishing similar information.

Relocation packages would be created; a raft of government tax and credit levers would incentivize the construction of new homes in safer areas. These new residential districts would be dense, be well-served by transit, and include ample amounts of truly affordable houses. The land left behind once residents voluntarily left would be turned into protected marshland and parks, the very things that will help slow flooding further inland. It is very difficult to persuade anyone to leave their home if they believe that their land will be snapped up and developed for a profit the moment they depart and not left to be allowed to return to protective marshland.

Policymakers would also announce that after the first 10 years, the incentives would be lower, perhaps far lower, so as to encourage early decisionmaking. Coastal regions like Charleston (and many other places) would need to pay much more attention to actually engaging meaningfully with communities, including with faith-based groups and nonprofits—not just looking for buy-in to existing plans, or placating groups by featuring leading nonoppositional members of those communities. This planning will require genuine partnerships tasked with creating funded plans that acknowledge the equity and environmental justice issues implicated by relocation. So far, strategic relocation has been a piecemeal thing, carried out by small towns acting alone.

We urgently need to shift to strategic efforts that include sociocultural as well as physical factors and involve the whole country. As Professor A. R. Siders of the University of Delaware, a leading academic in the emerging field of strategic relocation, says, “A substantial amount of innovation and work—in both research and practice—will need to be done to make strategic [relocation] an efficient and equitable adaptation option at scale.” We need to pay attention to the social costs of displacement, and plan ahead to avoid cruelty and harm. What we really need is federal leadership and national planning—and funding—for withdrawal from coastal regions. Alice Hill of the Council on Foreign Relations believes we need a national adaptation plan: “The plan on the national level would at a minimum help prioritize our federal investments. We’ll send signals to state, local governments and the private sector as to where we are going to make sure that we are building resilience and areas where maybe it isn’t cost-effective for the federal government to be involved any more.” We need, she says, to “measure our progress” as well. “Should we invest in beach renourishment, or do we build a seawall, or do we help these communities relocate altogether? Without a national adaptation plan, it’s very difficult to do that.”

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