Biden’s Climate Plan Still Means Tough Choices: Which Homes Get Saved?

The $2 trillion proposal represents an enormous effort to fight climate change, but it sidesteps the question of who will be forced to move because of rising water.,


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WASHINGTON — President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan represents an enormous effort to protect Americans from climate change, but it sidesteps one of the most immediate and wrenching dilemmas: Deciding not just where to spend more money on roads, bridges or sea walls, but where to stop spending — and instead, help people get out of the way.

The need to make difficult decisions like these reflects the growing consensus among experts that not every community in the United States can be protected in the long run. Some areas — particularly in some coastal zones, but also inland along rivers and other areas where flooding is worsening with climate change — can’t successfully be defended no matter how much money the government might be willing to throw into fortifications, drainage upgrades or other improvements.

Deciding which areas should be abandoned, and when, is one of the most urgent and difficult challenges facing the United States. The decision is deeply emotional, because it involves uprooting lives and destroying communities. The financial consequences are also sweeping, since property values are likely to plummet, along with the life savings of people who live there.

As a result, figuring out how to plan for retreat is among the hardest decisions facing policymakers, according to people who have worked on climate resilience.

“It’s an enormous challenge — the politics are very difficult,” said Alice Hill, who planned for managing climate effects at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. At that point, she said, the government wasn’t ready to tell people in vulnerable towns and cities, “You really want that bridge and you’re not going to get it, because your community’s going to be washed away.”

But as disasters become more devastating and frequent, Ms. Hill added, that conversation can no longer be avoided. “It’s definitely time,” she said.

The scale of the challenge is enormous, with as much as half a trillion dollars of coastal real estate expected to be underwater by the end of the century.

The idea is that communities facing insurmountable risks can either retreat from the most threatened areas in an organized way, before disaster strikes, or afterward. But either way, retreat in some places will be necessary.

Across the country, communities are already struggling to make difficult choices.

Louisiana, for example, has divided its southeastern coast — parts of which are being lost to rising seas — into low, medium and high-risk zones, with the goal of having the high-risk zones “transition away from permanent residential development.” Instead, development of new infrastructure would be focused further inland to accommodate the expected wave of new arrivals.

The Florida Keys delivered a similar message to residents, saying there wasn’t enough money to elevate every county road above the rising sea. Decisions about infrastructure spending, officials warned, were necessarily becoming decisions about which places to try to protect, and which places to let go.

In the Outer Banks of North Carolina, residents are being asked to pay higher property taxes — in some cases, increases of almost 50 percent — to protect the main road from being washed away by storms, prompting concern about how long that solution can last.

And last year Virginia issued a coastal development plan that bluntly acknowledged that flooding and inundation would force retreat from many coastal areas, requiring public and private buildings and infrastructure to be moved to higher ground “to avoid destruction.”

“Some Virginia residents and communities will face difficult choices about relocation,” Matthew J. Strickler, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, said by email. “We are not shying away from talking about this.”

Even previous administrations, including that of President Donald J. Trump, have acknowledged that some places can’t be saved.

In the final weeks of the Obama administration, when Mr. Biden served as vice president, the White House sought to create what it called a working group on managed retreat, to coordinate policies across the federal government for relocating communities that wanted to move. It defined retreat as “a complete abandonment of that community.”

While Mr. Trump was president, that idea continued to gain momentum after a series of devastating hurricanes. Agencies that help communities rebuild after disasters began pushing harder for what they called “large-scale migration or relocation,” through buying and demolishing vulnerable homes. The Army Corps of Engineers even began telling local communities that, to get some kinds of federal aid, they must be willing to evict reluctant homeowners from hard-to-protect houses.

But taking that logic one step further, and restricting new federal infrastructure spending for those areas, was too challenging, Ms. Hill said.

The question came up again during the Trump administration but was quickly rejected, according to a former administration official who worked on resilience issues and requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized by their current employer to speak to the media.

Mr. Biden’s infrastructure proposal suggests that political pressure remains.

The proposal doesn’t include the word retreat, but it does call for “relocation assistance to support community-led transitions for the most vulnerable tribal communities.” The plan doesn’t say why relocation assistance would specifically apply to Native American communities. In an interview, an administration official, who agreed to discuss the proposal on the condition that he not be identified by name, said the infrastructure package included money to improve data about future climate risks. That would allow governments to better understand the threats facing new projects, the person said, and incorporate that information into decisions about how and where to build.

Jainey Bavishi, who worked on managed-retreat policy as a senior official in the Obama administration, said the question was challenging because it goes beyond engineering and finance.

Deciding where to pull back is also about race and equity, she said, since many vulnerable areas are also minority communities that have suffered a lack of government investment in the past. Retreat also impacts other policy problems, like the availability of affordable housing and the impact on families’ financial health.

“Talking about where people can live, and where people cannot, is ultimately what this is about,” said Ms. Bavishi, who is now director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency in New York City. “And those are really, really difficult conversations to have.”

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