When Climate Hits Home

Global Policies and Local Responses to Climate Migration and Hazard Management, 1988-2023 

Jana Keck


Since 1901, global sea level has risen approximately eight inches. Coastal regions like Louisiana, situated in the Gulf Coast, have witnessed an even more pronounced increase, with their relative sea level surging by eight inches or more in the last five decades, approximately double the global average. Climate change has posed a significant threat to these coastal areas, already burdened by local human activity, pollution, and invasive species. Consequently, residents of these coastal regions must proactively consider relocation as part of hazard analysis and mitigation efforts. While discussions regarding climate-induced population migration often spotlight the challenges faced by the Global South, examples from both contemporary and historical contexts reveal that the Global North has also engaged in relocation, commonly refered to as “managed retreat,” as a means of climate adaptation. Since 1989, one year after NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen testified before a United States senate committee to confirm the detection of the greenhouse effect, the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has supported managed retreat initiatives in over 1,100 counties spanning 49 states, facilitating the acquisition of more than 40,000 properties.

This project delves into the intricate historical dimensions of climate-induced internal migration as adaptation strategies, aiming to bridge critical knowledge gaps across local, regional, and global scales. The study commences in 1988, illuminating the emergence and evolution of population migration and hazard mitigation as responses to the escalating impacts of climate change. It concludes in 2023, a pivotal year marked by political backtracking on green pledges, despite likely being humanity’s hottest year ever. While there exists a growing body of qualitative evidence worldwide documenting population migration patterns in response to environmental changes, it is important to note that only a limited amount of research, primarily from the field of attribution science, has linked this evidence to anthropogenic climate change. Furthermore, these accounts often overlook the historical dimension of climate-induced human mobility, which involves a complex interplay of economic, demographic, social, political, and environmental factors. Our understanding of these processes remains limited. Only a few well-known disasters, such as the South East Asian tsunami in 2004 (affecting Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India), Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (impacting Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia), or Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh in 2007, have garnered significant attention. Despite the prioritization of rebuilding over relocation as these cases demonstrate, it is imperative to recognize that climate change will necessitate managed retreat on a much larger scale. This is due to the potential failure or breach of resistance measures like seawalls, levees, or armoring, and elevated homes may still be susceptible to damage.

This project scrutinizes worldwide instances of managed retreat, investigating who made the decision (or was compelled) to migrate, identifying areas that received governmental funding, exploring the psychological, institutional, and practical barriers that influenced migration dynamics, and examining the outcomes for both the relocated areas and individuals’ homes. Managed retreat extends beyond environmental concerns. It also encompasses implications for housing, wealth distribution, transportation, energy efficiency, and environmental justice. At its core, the project endeavors to challenge prevailing misconceptions by illuminating the nexus between environmental migrations and anthropogenic climate change. Through meticulous examination of historical records, including scientific reports, national and local newspapers, governmental archives, and indigenous repositories, the research project seeks to unearth untold narratives of displacement, resilience, and adaptation. Adopting a historical approach contributes significantly to debunking the notion that global climate change, environmental migration, and relocation strategies are predominantly issues of the Global South. Therefore, this project employs a multisited approach that transcends geographical boundaries, connecting global policies with local responses in coastal areas across the Gulf Coast, South, and Southeast Asia, with the aim of “domesticating” global climate change.