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.