The politically inconvenient reality of climate change adaptation is creeping into the 2020 election.
In a shift from the last presidential election, when climate change was a tangential issue, the three leading Democrats running for president acknowledged during a climate town hall last week that some people will need to leave their homes due to rising sea levels and chronic flooding.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said that, in some particularly vulnerable spots, “we don’t build back to normal, we build back to what is necessary."
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said “if people want to rebuild in an area which will be devastated by the next storm, they’re certainly not going to get any federal assistance from my administration to do that.”
And Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “It’s got to be heart-wrenching to watch your homelands disappear like this and to know that you’ve done everything you can do, but that the forces bigger than you have taken over” in response to a voter who was forced to move from their home due to mold and repeat flooding.
The idea of retreating from some of the country’s more vulnerable coastlines received a brief mention at the second Democratic debate in July from entrepreneur Andrew Yang, and could get more attention at the third debate on Thursday in Houston, another low-lying metropolis that was inundated by Hurricane Harvey two years ago.
But telling people in swing states like Florida that they may have to leave their homes isn’t a popular political move, even when the science shows it’s likely to happen as sea levels rise and climate changes makes stronger hurricanes more likely to damage and destroy homes.
Last week’s town hall was the first time where the leading candidates talked in detail about people being relocated due to climate change. For Biden, the subject came up when he was asked about insurance for coastal properties becoming unsustainable due to sea level rise. He used his home state of Delaware — the southern half sits just feet above sea level — as an example.
“My state is three feet above sea level,” Biden said. “We know what’s going to happen if we don’t make significant change. And so we’ll be telling people: don’t build in those places there.”
As for people already living in low-lying areas, Biden said they “are going to be in real trouble” if they need to rebuild after a disaster.
“Eventually what’s going to happen is, you’re going to have insurance companies come along and say I can’t insure that, because the prospect that that it is going to be blown away is overwhelming. And so we have to, you know, be in a position where when we build back, we don’t build back to normal, we build back to what is necessary.”
For Sanders, the issue of retreat was raised when he was talking about his $16 trillion climate plan, and how rising sea levels could leave places like Miami underwater.
“We have the absurd situation where the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] will only pay to repair a facility or a piece of infrastructure where it was before it was destroyed,” Sanders said. “That’s pretty stupid. I mean, if it was destroyed once and you rebuild it [and] it’s destroyed twice, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put it there again. Which raises even the broader question of how we’re going to protect communities. There are scientists who think that parts of Charleston, South Carolina, parts of Miami will be underwater. What do we do to protect those communities?”
When asked if people in coastal communities would have to move, he said “you do your best through carrots and sticks at the federal level” but said people who want to rebuild in an area likely to be hit repeatedly wouldn’t get any help from the federal government if he becomes president.
Warren, at the same forum, acknowledged that some of the details of her climate plan are “not all the way stretched out yet” but said her climate plan will include “justice...for people who have been displaced, for workers who have been displaced.”
“And so part of this change is not only about reducing climate footprint, about reducing our pollution of this earth, but it’s about trying to help those who’ve been injured from all that’s happened,” Warren said. “I want to work on this with the communities that are affected, making sure that this money goes down to the community level, that it doesn’t just all happen in two or three places around the country that can make the most noise.”
Members of Congress acknowledge that their constituents in flood prone areas are getting bailed out more often, a costly problem without a long-term solution. But instead of overhauling the nation’s flood insurance program, lawmakers in Washington throw money at it for short periods of time while their constituents anxiously wait for government flood maps to be redrawn.
The idea of retreat, or managed relocation, as some experts prefer to call it, has been used by communities for decades. Knocking down a flood-prone home and allowing nature to take over not only removes flood risk, it can lower flood insurance prices for the whole neighborhood.
But it’s rarely popular. And with climate change, it’s likely to be on a much larger scale - a whole swath of land, not just a house or two.
“For some communities in some places, it’s not a question of when or if, but when, how and under what circumstances,” said Katharine Mach, one of the authors of the latest National Climate Assessment.
And it’s already happening in spots across the country, she said: in Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, in indigenous villages in Alaska and in a waterfront community in Louisiana.
In those cases, the moves are funded by the federal government, but the process is anything but smooth. It can take years, the final price can leave homeowners frustrated and the people remaining in the community can see home values drop.
“It’s not something we can say we know how to do in a straightforward and equitable way. We’re still learning,” said Mach, an associate professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
And while the process is being figured out, Americans keep building more homes in risky areas, compounding the future problem. Florida stands to build more homes in flood risk zones than any other state by the end of the century, according to an analysis by Climate Central and Zillow.
That would increase the total cost of retreat tremendously. In Florida, the state is spending $75 million on buyouts of homes damaged by 2017’s Hurricane Irma, and it’s paying full, pre-storm market value.
By 2060, when the state could see two feet of sea rise, more than $40 billion of real estate could be prone to regular floods, a Climate Central analysis found.
Buying out every home at risk is financially impossible. Experts say the only way to avoid financial instability in coastal communities is to shift people inland, possibly through Canadian-stye mandatory buyouts. That could mean no more federal money to rebuild after a natural disaster, an approach Sanders advocated in CNN’s climate town hall.
But Florida lawmakers from both parties caution that retreat must be discussed carefully, and Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of adding drama to the retreat issue for political purposes.
Republicans say talking about people in South Florida losing their houses due to climate change is an attempt to justify government overreach. Democrats say retreat is part of wider climate change solution, and add the caveat that relocating mass amounts of people is not something that’s happening in the near future.
“Alarmism is a political strategy aimed at justifying radical policies, many of which are only tangentially related to the climate, but it certainly does not solve the problems facing Floridians,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement to the Miami Herald. “We must realistically plan for the impacts of climate change on our coastal infrastructure and take adaptive measures that can help narrow the gap that American innovation must fill to address the threat of future impacts.”
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Miami, who represents the low-lying Florida Keys, said some of her constituents may have to consider moving inland as insurance rates rise and the threat of a storm-induced flooding goes up. But she said it’s misguided to equate retreat with GOP talking points that Democrats want to ban plastic straws and red meat to combat climate change.
“Can we not be that dramatic?” Mucarsel-Powell said. “This is not happening tomorrow. There are things we can do to slow down the effects of climate change. I’m an optimist. I’m positive about that. Let’s not be radical about these issues but we have to have these very difficult conversations.”
Rubio noted that he supports efforts to set aside federal funds to mitigate costs for homeowners with the highest-risk properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program. The program can cost the government billions of dollars when thousands of homes are damaged in major storms like Hurricane Irma.
“Reforming and improving the NFIP is a necessity for Florida because the program as currently constructed takes a reactive approach to a problem that requires proactive solutions,” Rubio said. “NFIP and FEMA should work together on pre-disaster mitigation programs to decrease the cost to taxpayers and residents when disaster strikes.”
Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott said the first line of defense against rising sea levels is infrastructure, noting Miami Beach’s street-level pumps and an Army Corps project in Pasco County to revamp drainage in a neighborhood that ended up under water three times during his tenure as governor.
But he said a strong economy must be the first priority for any policy discussion, a key philosophical difference between most Democrats and Republicans.
“I clearly believe the climate is changing but here’s how I think about it: I can’t do anything without a good economy because I have no money. So that’s why I put so much effort into the economy,” Scott said. “When you do that, you can deal with issues. You can deal with sea level rise. You can deal with flood mitigation programs.”
Rep. Francis Rooney, a pro-environment Florida Republican who represents low-lying Naples, said he supports expanding the National Flood Insurance Program’s buyouts for houses that frequently flood after seeing flooded homes in Everglades City during Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.
“I said, ‘Look, just take the million and move to higher ground,’” Rooney said.
Rooney thinks the government can explain to voters that future retreat programs aren’t part of a big-government land grab, but are an opportunity to start fresh without the constant worry of flooding.
“I think I would say, ‘we have a program that would help you do better than what you’re doing now because of current conditions out of your control," he said.