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A climate specialist sees 'managed retreat' from the coast a solution for Long Island and beyond

Montauk Point Lighthouse
Kathy Kmonicek
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Montauk Point Lighthouse

WSHU’s new podcast about climate change, Higher Ground, explores how Long Island and other coastal communities find ways to adapt to rising sea level and extreme weather, especially in Montauk and other places that are considering moving away from the coast. Host J.D. Allen spoke with a specialist in international relations who sees this “managed retreat” as a global solution.

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Credit Joshua Joseph/WSHU Public Radio
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Join climate specialists and WSHU to explore how Long Islanders are finding ways to adapt to climate change in their neighborhoods, on the new climate podcast, Higher Ground. Available wherever you get your podcasts.

Parag Khanna is the founder of a group called FutureMap, which advises governments and companies across the globe on how to deal with climate change.

J.D. Allen, WSHU: Research shows that climate change will make it hotter and wetter, with more extreme weather events and volatility that contributes to rising tides. That’s a tall order for you to help deal with.

Parag Khanna: It sure is. But then again, climate change is coming at us faster than we ever thought. And you know, so much of our economy is not this dematerialized, ethereal internet economy. Place really matters. Geography really matters. And I wrote this book from the standpoint of geography, understanding what geographies are going to remain livable, because we shouldn't be a survival society in which we live just to continue to rebuild. But rather, I believe we need to relocate proactively to places where humanity can resettle and thrive.

JDA: Yeah. And so you did write a book. It's called “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.” It’s about the need for Americans to have physical mobility to move away from the impacts of climate change, like severe coastal flooding, but also droughts and forest fires. Why is movement a solution?

PK: Well, indeed, I really redefine the American dream, not as a home and a degree, but rather mobility and skills. And it turns out that the pathway, the surest pathway, to economic mobility, which we all crave and desire, is actually physical mobility, getting up and moving. And historically, Americans used to move a lot more in search of that American dream. The westward expansion is just one example.

Or out of desperation, if you look at people who have moved from the Rust belt to the Sun belt, after the financial crisis, so we need to encourage more physical mobility.

But we also need to have climate change in mind and climate factors. Again, why should people move to places where their homes are potentially going to be destroyed, only to lose their life savings. And of course, now, the insurance industry and the government are stepping in to nudge people away through higher premiums for flood insurance, or reconstruction grants that are pegged to moving away from climate risk areas. So in fact, American federal policy is definitely starting to nudge in the direction that I'm advocating.

JDA: And you mentioned governments: In Nassau and Suffolk County, New York, where my podcast, Higher Ground, takes place, researchers anticipate the rate of sea level rise to be over a foot every 100 years. The latest UN climate report expects high tides to rise up to six feet by 2100 globally.

And as you're advising through your book, how do people and people in decision making roles perceive this mounting pressure to do something?

PK: Well, one of the most important, moral rules you might say, is a public policy is called the precautionary principle right?

In Episode 3, Beekeeper Debbie Krugher uses the precautionary principle to explain how residents can be better neighbors to honeybees and each other.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And we shouldn't make our estimates and our forecasts and do planning based upon what is the mildest longest term scenario. In other words, you need to assume the worst and plan accordingly. And that would mean again anticipating. There's going to be more sea level rise, more coastal surges and faster than we thought.

Look at hurricane Ida, which battered the Gulf Coast, but it flooded basements in New Jersey. Now no current climate model tells you that that's going to happen. So we need to act accordingly. And so the smart government, so the ones that are saying, How can we again, incentivize people to move to climate resilient areas? Now in America, that would mean the Great Lakes region, which is, of course, ironic, because in the last 10 years, we have seen the population of the, you know, Rust Belt states, particularly Michigan, decrease, and Michigan has even lost congressional seats.

But now we're in a situation where if you take Louisiana, the population is starting to decline, because people have just suffered one natural disaster after another. And it costs too much to rebuild infrastructure, which is simply going to be destroyed again in the next storm. So that's where the government needs to say, you know, you may not know where you're going to go next. But let us help you relocate from south to north, right: from Louisiana to Michigan, if need be. And that's what spatial planning at a national scale is about. Now, I'm not talking about forced migration here, right? I'm talking about helping people prepare for the rest of their lives in a place so they don't have to suffer the tragedies that they already have again.

JDA: It's not something that all communities can afford to do, though. On Long Island, we explore how Montauk might plan to do just that; to move away from the coast. But that's got Hampton's money involved. How do we ensure that this process is equitable?

PK: Right. Well, first of all, you know, there are different circumstances in different parts of them. There are wealthy parts of the country like, you know, coastal California, Northern California, where there've been forest fires, but some of the many of those people are fortunate enough to be able to afford to relocate, build new homes, and avoid fire prone areas.

When you think about the northeast of the United States, we do have space to move inward. You know, for Long Island in particular is rather narrow. But let me give you the example of Westchester County, I actually grew up in Westchester County, and it's a highly climate resilient area. One of the things that you've seen organically during the pandemic is simply because of the option for remote work, people have been moving to the upper Hudson Valley, and really populating and revitalizing some of those towns all the way up towards Poughkeepsie and beyond.

And I'll just add, again, on a personal level, my parents left and retired and moved to California, and they actually sold their house at a pretty significant loss, because it was before the pandemic in America. Family sizes have shrunk. And you know, new families didn't want to have a house of that sort of size. But today, you find a huge demand for exactly those properties. So in other words, the lesson in this is we're not very good at matching up what's happening economically and in the housing market, with what's happening environmentally, where some of the places that are actually really safe and secure, have been, you know, sort of not attracting people the way they should.

So I think that you know, there are, you know, America is a large country, one of the several largest countries on the planet Earth. So often I get frustrated when I hear people say that climate change is going to be so disastrous, you know, for the country. I say, wait a minute, you know, just because, you know, Miami is in trouble, or, you know, certain boroughs of New York are in trouble. Remember that we have 3,000 counties in America, and most of America is climate resilient. So let's not treat America as this heavily bordered and fortified set of states and counties.

We have mobility, right? You know, and mobility has to be part of that American dream where people say, look, it's not my fault, climate change, right. But as an American, you have to, in a way, spread yourself out, take advantage of the vast geography that we have, and rebuild in new places.

JDA: You're advocating for physical mobility. So what has to happen next?

PK: Again, it depends on where people are. The number one thing — and this also gets to your previous question is focusing on affordability — whether or not we have climate change, or whether or not we have an economic crisis, the fact is that all over the world, there's one common policy challenge and that is affordable housing. And we have solutions to the affordable housing crisis all over the world. And that involves now more and more things like using 3D printing, right? Even encouraging people to live in mobile homes or in you know, moveable homes that are prefab homes, things like this. And we could do such a better job of allocating the money necessary to do affordable housing that is of a very modern nature that is more sustainable, and so on. So I would like to see a lot more public and private support for that kind of initiative. So affordable housing in climate resilient areas would be a huge step forward.

Parag Khanna is the author of “Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.” He also runs FutureMap, which forecasts suitability for 3,000 counties across the U.S. and other countries. He is a former senior advisor to U.S. Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has advised the US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends program.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.