Daunting and uncertain is the future for people who must decide whether, where, when, and how to vacate their homes as the climate changes. Communities who will absorb this influx of uprooted people also face challenges. In a special issue of Science, "Fallback Strategies: Planning for Climate-Induced Relocation," experts examine ways in which interdisciplinary basic and applied research can - and must - engage with and support communities and governments navigating this landscape. As this work is done, "we must consider not only what science can do, but how science is done, and by whom," emphasizes Science's senior commentary editor Brad Wible.
Considering retreat from climate change raises tensions about what losses are unacceptable and what aspects of societies should be maintained. In a Review, Katharine Mach and A.R. Siders integrate research across disciplines to chart a roadmap for retreat that is strategic and managed - i.e., designed and executed in ways that promote broader societal goals like social justice, environmental health, and cultural heritage. Such a retreat plan differs from past practice, say Mach and Siders, noting that historically, managed projects - like voluntary buyouts to move small numbers of families out of flood-prone homes in the United States - have been largely incremental adjustments implemented using a handful of policy tools and guided by a limited set of social values. These efforts have also raised equity concerns about who is offered buyouts and how they are treated in the process. The authors address the way climate retreat has been framed historically: as "a deprioritized, politically perilous option." If it were prioritized, say Mach and Siders, it could be more effective at reducing risk, more socially equitable, and more economically efficient. The authors further note the forms retreat has taken so far, but argue that managed retreat can take on even more. Implementing "lessons learned from design-thinking and planning and by integrating insights from a range of social sciences and the arts" could lead the way, Mach and Siders say. They note that pursuing such visions could lead to harms as well as beneficial outcomes; "top-down or overly techno-optimistic visions, in particular, may continue colonialist, autocratic, or otherwise unjust traditions." Key features of effective processes therefore involve factors including diverse responses; integration of local, Indigenous, scientific, and other scholarly knowledge; and meaningful public deliberation. "Our goal in authoring this article is not to suggest that managed retreat will be the optimal adaption in any place," say the authors, "but to encourage serious consideration of retreat in climate-related transformations."
The special issue also includes an Editorial that emphasizes the importance of Indigenous communities playing a leading role in any efforts involving climate-forced relocation in their homelands. "Communities forced to make the awful decision to leave their ancestral lands must define every aspect of how research occurs in order to ensure that the research supports their efforts to create long-term adaptation strategies to respond to the accelerating climate crisis," write Robin Bronen and Patricia Cochran. Five Policy Forums tackle issues ranging from the hidden costs climate change causes in terms of human displacement to a lack of bottom-up analyses in climate risk assessment, which stands to minimize the potential for human agency to find creative, locally appropriate solutions. One Policy Forum also highlights how Bangladesh, among the most vulnerable countries to climate change in South Asia, can stand as a model of disaster management, adaptation, and resilience.