This article is part of a series form Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise.
Pacifica, California, is a beautiful coastal town located 12 miles south of San Francisco.
But the exquisite Pacific Ocean is now turning on it. As sea levels rise due to global warming, the occasional backyard falls into the water. In 2018, the town proposed a response: the relocation of houses, businesses, and public assets away from areas under threat. There was resistance. Naturally, people don’t want to leave their local communities and homes, which some residents originally paid a lot for. But the language may have made it worse. The proposal used the term “managed retreat”—the most widely used name in English for this practice and one that brings to mind “defeat.” One local stated: “ ‘Managed retreat’ is a code word for give up—on our homes and the town itself.” Some community members demanded the removal of “managed retreat” from the wider plans, which occurred. Pacifica returned to extending sea walls. Four years later, people are still unsure what will happen in their town as climate change unfolds.
Citizens in many places may be more receptive to such programs under different names. Coasts will inevitably be battered, but why needlessly batter egos? Possibilities abound for an alternative phrasing, such as “planned relocation” and “graceful withdrawal.” Some are more convincing than others and could genuinely help convince people to relocate when necessary.
Yet policy makers and experts need to recognize the limits of prescribing specific language. Shifting the conversation about the policy involves more than just a rebrand. Clear and targeted communication about climate change can persuade and empower people in places in peril.
The phrase “managed retreat” was coined by coastal engineers in the early 1990s. It initially referred to the removal of infrastructure, such as sea walls, so the rising ocean could encroach, particularly in Australia and the U.K. (One well-known example took place on the Essex coast.) In the U.K., the name was gradually replaced throughout the 1990s with “managed realignment,” which is less confronting, but more euphemistic.
Nevertheless, by the mid-aughts, the name “managed retreat” remained in use and had broadened to include stipulating people live in safer places. Today, people interpret “retreat” to mean moving away from the coast or, also, more recently, other places under threat from climate disasters, such as heatwaves and wildfires. The “managed” part suggests that authorities will carefully coordinate relocations to reduce climate risk and any potential inequities.
Policies of this kind have a long history in the United States, where they have gone under a number of names. The government has used buyouts, an older and narrower term from emergency management, which some say is a more piecemeal approach. For example, in 2000, some floodplain residents in Austin, Minnesota, participated in a process similar to what goes by the name “managed retreat.” “Community relocation” has whole towns essentially being picked up, then put down in a safer place. For instance, Newtok (Niugtaq), an Indigenous Yup’ik village, is one of a number of places in Alaska in danger from erosion via melting permafrost. Residents voted in 2003 on a process by the name “community relocation,” although plan documents also utilize Yup’ik language terminology. In the past 10 years, governments have proposed “managed retreat” to communities including Del Mar, California; Camp Ellis, Maine; and Napakiak, Alaska. It’s been suggested for places in Hawaii. Sometimes, “higher up” documents use the name “managed retreat,” yet materials presented to communities don’t.
The resistance to and criticisms of “managed retreat” focus on the pain and loss of leaving. Abandoning your home is difficult under any circumstances, but the language seems to rub salt in the wound. This could apply to residents in low-income areas of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia; First Nations communities in Lake St. Martin, Manitoba, Canada; or seaside mansion dwellers in Miami. The word retreat emphasizes that you’re moving away from your home and land rather than a new place or future that you’re moving to. Managed can suggest too much “top-down” control and put off individuals or communities who distrust governments.
To my mind, the strongest alternative phrases are those using resettlement, which point to the possibilities of the new home. “Community-led resettlement” or “tribal resettlement,” used in the context of towns of Indigenous groups or others who are marginalized, emphasize the direction of the people involved in achieving a just outcome. “Planned resettlement” suggests a more authority-led process, which, in some contexts, may be apt. Plain labels using “relocation,” either “community” or “planned,” have the advantage of being transparent about what is going to occur. “Corrective shoreline planning” and “hazard avoidance” point to the language of science and expertise, which could lessen their broad appeal. Proactive labels, like “aggressive resilience” and “strategic advance,” have been proposed to portray agency and strength. Though well-meaning, suggestions of this kind risk of coming off as Orwellian.
One reason that changing the name is not a cure-all is that people in the places concerned have already heard “managed retreat” and formed an opinion. Some proposals using the term “managed retreat” have been embraced. They tend to be ones where the loss is not so great, such as Marina, California, where there were limited amounts of private property.
“Managed retreat” and its alternatives point to a larger problem in climate change communication. They are all snappy two-word expressions—but people do not know exactly what they actually mean. They’re jargon and thus less likely to sink in. One way to address this is to add simple explanations that sit closer to the heart. To illustrate, the town of Hampton, New Hampshire, which is threatened by sea level rise and more frequent storms, is engaging in discussions with community members about three different kinds of climate adaptation: “keep the water out” (protections such as levees), “live with water” (accommodation such as building flood-resistant homes), and “get out of the water’s way” (managed retreat or relocation).
Public communication about these kinds of resettlement schemes can also be enhanced by using locally relatable words and avoiding contentious ones. For example, temperature increase in some parts of remote Australia will lead to more exits from communities. Outback residents may prefer to talk about “the heat” as opposed to admitting to “climate change,” which they associate with affluent, left-leaning city dwellers. Some in the threatened town of King Salmon in Northern California object to the expression “sea level rise,” even though they acknowledge that flooding has worsened over the years. Meeting people where they are at now would be a good starting point.
Effective messaging about how relocation will unfold and how lives can be rebuilt is also essential. After recent Australian floods in towns graced by eucalypt forests, an official said: “You’ve got people who want to live among the gum trees—what do you think is going to happen? Their house falls in the river, and they say it’s the government’s fault.” Such insensitive words that criticize attachment to place can set back the case for climate-informed planning. Leveraging love of place, for example, talking about the possibilities for new, shared uses for land, such as public parks for recreation, can provide hope for the future.
Moving away from places facing high climate risk can have promising results. Ashley Tom, a new resident of Mertarvik, Alaska, the town built to replace the now perilous Newtok, told the Guardian that , despite the sadness of leaving home, “It’s just a blessing to be in a better environment … , and I feel more safe over here since we’re on higher ground.” Faced by climate change, our survival depends on changing our ways of life, including where we live. Policy makers and experts should get rid of language barriers in the same way they propose to remove sea walls. The terrible term “managed retreat” must be abandoned and more resonant words used instead.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.