October 11, 2023
Climate impacts such as sea-level rise, extreme heat and drought, and sudden natural disasters could force over 20 million Americans to permanently leave their homes by 2100. The planned relocation of climate-vulnerable residents is known as "managed retreat," and it is most commonly pursued through post-disaster buyouts. After a natural disaster damages or destroys a home, local governments may choose to offer homeowners the pre-disaster, fair-market value of their house to move away, rather than rebuild. Over the last 40 years, municipalities have relocated nearly 50,000 American households in this manner at a cost of $3.5 billion, typically a few homes at a time.At this rate of buyouts, it would take thousands of years to help all at-risk American homeowners and their households move to safety. Of course, the U.S. does not have that luxury, as the ocean is already encroaching upon entire towns. Either the government must step up to more efficiently relocate such communities en masse, or property owners will eventually be forced to abandon their homes, likely at a near-total financial loss.The U.S. needs an ambitious plan to support millions of Americans to steadily relocate in the coming decades in a way that is financially feasible, community-led, and socioeconomically equitable. The federal government, local partners, and the private sector must collaborate to (1) limit further population inflows to climate-vulnerable areas; (2) incentivize at-risk residents to move to safer ground on their own accord; and (3) proactively plan and implement buyouts at scale.