Climate Refugees and Strategic Retreat

February 19, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard


Strategic Retreat is one of the most critical challenges we face as a consequence of our climate crisis. It’s a topic that hasn’t been covered in much detail in the climate literature. This is largely because, until recently, most books and media reports about climate change were focused on substantiating that climate change is “real”.


Climate change is HERE and NOW, and we have entered the fight or flight stage.  


Strategic Retreat is the planned and managed relocation of millions of people triggered by extreme weather, droughts, floods and sea level rise. Mass migrations are inevitable. To minimize social strife and human suffering, they must be thought through and planned for. Sometimes it is called managed retreat, but that’s the second stage. The first stage is to strategically plan as much as we can… starting now!


How do we prepare for the relocation of hundreds of millions of people in the decades ahead? 



Extreme Weather Events


Extreme weather events are happening with increasing frequency. “500 year” floods and droughts are occurring every few years. Massive cyclones and hurricanes are devastating large swaths of land all over the globe. Forests and brush lands covering millions of acres are burning, destroying entire towns and small cities.

It’s one thing to rebuild a home after a flood destroys it, with the expectation that the next flood won’t occur for decades. It’s a completely different thing if that home is flooded again and again every few years. At some point, people give up. They decide to move elsewhere. Wealthy people can absorb the loss and buy a new home in a safer location. Poor people don’t have the wherewithal to do that. They become displaced.


It’s impossible to determine exactly the number of people who will be forced to migrate due to climate change. There’s no historical reference for a migration this large. The range of estimates is 10 to 30 million climate refugees between now and 2030, and 50 to 140 million by 2050. It has already begun and it will accelerate


As more areas of our world become uninhabitable, large refugee migrations will become more frequent. How will we handle them? Where will they go? Who will pay?


Sea Level Rise


Just how much sea level rise (SLR) we will experience depends on too many factors to forecast with accuracy. Current projections are all over the place. We know SLR will occur at different rates and at variable levels depending on location and the speed at which land ice is melting around the world. We know the oceans are rising at ever faster rates. The pace of global sea level rise nearly tripled from 1.7 mm/year throughout most of the twentieth century to 4.7 mm/year from 2010 to 2020.


To give you an example of the amount of water stored in land-based ice and glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet is 10,000 feet thick in places and contains enough ice to raise sea levels 23 feet (7 meters).


Humanity has taken a planet at equilibrium and triggered a process that will result in significant changes to many characteristics of the biosphere.


There will be tens of millions of people forced to move due to SLR. Where will they go? Will there be compensation for the lost value of their coastal homes? Who will pay for their resettlement? 


Here’s an example close to home. Miami-Dade county has 2.75 million residents and is the seventh largest county in the U.S. This county is already suffering the early consequences of SLR. Every month, parts of Miami Beach are under water. It is a phenomenon called ‘sunny day flooding’ and is now becoming common in Florida and up the East Coast.


Where will these people move to once real estate values start to collapse, their freshwater aquifer is tainted by saltwater, and there is standing water in most of the streets, most of the time? There currently are initiatives either under way or planned to raise city streets, and to build sea walls and pumping stations. The projected costs are in the billions and these are just partial solutions. What about all the homes and businesses? Who is going to pay to raise them up by several feet? How do you raise a thirty-story condo tower? Will they lose their real estate investments? When will the banks stop lending for construction on parcels at risk for SLR? 


Insurance companies (especially reinsurers) have seen this coming for decades. Will they pick up the tab? Will the state or federal governments? Hardly likely. 


The most expensive residential real estate is on the beach or on barrier islands. Those are exactly the locations most at risk for SLR. What happens to property values when a majority of residents “get it” and everyone is selling? What happens to beach economies and tourism when the beaches are under water?


Historical Migrations


There are mass migration precedents in our history. Here are a few examples:


Afghanistan to Pakistan


2.8 million

All Countries to Israel

1948 to 2000

3.6 million

The Petition of India

Late 1940s

10 million

Nazi Expulsion

1935 to 1945

12 million

Stalin’s Forced Migrations

1929 to 1952

12 million

African Slave Trade

1400s to 1800s

12 million


These are massive numbers of refugees, and the human suffering that accompanied these migrations is horrifying. Yet they pale in comparison to the numbers of people about to be displaced from their homes due to climate change. It is ludicrous to think that it will work out okay without coordinated thought, planning and policy preparation across the globe.


Legal Issues


There’s an interesting legal dilemma regarding all these people who will be displaced. Since there has never been a refugee problem due to climate, it hasn’t been incorporated into legal definitions. The legal definition of  “refugee” means someone escaping persecution for political or religious reasons.


Technically, all the people displaced by our climate crisis do not qualify for refugee status, although their personal losses may be every bit as egregious as war time refugees. All refugee laws (national and international) must be updated.


Immigrations Regulations


The U.S. is experiencing a divisive conflict over immigration. There are those who want to close the borders… and there are those who believe we should accept anyone who wants to enter with open arms. Neither of these is an acceptable solution. What must be done lies somewhere between these polar opposites.


Climate refugees and strategic retreat are not just American issues. Every country on the planet will have a role to play. What that will be, how the rules get made, and how it all plays out remains to be seen. It’s a problem and an opportunity. An opportunity for global compassion, collaboration and cooperation. We will see if humanity is up to the challenge.


Strategic Retreat is a huge issue. One that will affect billions of people (if we count those who may not have to migrate, but will be impacted by the issue in one way or another). We must start to work on it NOW, or we will surely experience the tearing of the social fabric globally, and unprecedented economic and cultural disruption.





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