Q-and-A with Karen O’Neill

Thanks to the vagaries of geography and currents, sea levels in the Northeast are rising faster than almost anywhere in the world.

By 2040, the federal government expects the ocean to rise at least one foot along the coast of New Jersey, putting almost 9,000 homes permanently underwater and exposing many more to ever-worsening storms and flooding.

That poses an almost impossible task for government: There’s not enough money to save every community, nor are most people willing to leave their homes — yet.

I spoke with Karen O’Neill, a sociologist at Rutgers University who studies climate migration, about the illusion of protection, how to entice people to move away from vulnerable areas, and why she tries to avoid the word “retreat.” The interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: Most Americans, to the degree that they think about climate-change adaptation, probably think of bigger sea walls, or maybe changing the kinds of houses we live in. You’re looking at something different.

A: There’s been an ongoing war that dates back at least 200 years between people who favor building engineered structures versus critics who say you’re overpromising. That’s the “protect” strategy — it can be a wall, which is what most people are familiar with. Almost always, that’s the top preference; it sounds good.

The second strategy is to accommodate — raising houses on stilts. Both the protect strategy and the accommodation strategy keep people in place.

The third one is, move. You just cannot protect your way out of the whole thing. Humans have always moved and retreated from shorelines. Archaeologists now are able to do underwater excavations; what they’re telling us about longterm adaptation to the climate really has some lessons for us.

Q: In a new paper [“The shore is wider than the beach,” Landscape and Urban Planning, January 2017], you and others write about one New Jersey town, Toms River, which includes both barrier islands and part of the mainland. You argue that creating new tourism attractions on the mainland, such as artificial lakes, might pull people in from the barrier islands.

A: The word “retreat” seems to indicate defeat. What we wanted to do is to think about the tourism economy. There are, it turns out, lots of sand mines that are near shore areas in the U.S. It’s already a pit. So let’s make it into an artificial lake.

You could develop resorts around this. You can create things that are like boardwalk attractions. You can have amusement parks. You could have condominiums along the water. And it’s close enough to the estuaries that you could actually have access to saltwater as well.

Q: The goal here is that people who now live in danger at the shore would have a reason to relocate?

A: We didn’t want to dictate. People are very resistant to the idea of a bunch of planners telling them that they should relocate. In fact, we said very little about the barrier island itself, other than “here are some ways it’s going to be inundated.”

Q: After Superstorm Sandy, why aren’t people clamoring for options to get away from the shore?

A: Because in the short term, it’s absolutely rational to stay there. Because there’s money to be made.

What’s of concern to me is what [New Jersey] Gov. Chris Christie, R, called the “family shore.” These are people who had paid off their houses years ago. Maybe they inherited it from their grandparents. And they’re just on the edge — they don’t have the resources to raise their house, even with government aid.

Q: Will the insurance industry force these people to leave?

A: They’re ready, at any moment, to push the button in any particular community: We can insure you this year, and then decide next year that we’re not insuring you.

But a lot of people don’t have insurance. If they’ve paid off the house, they may not even have homeowners insurance. They certainly don’t have to have flood insurance through the federal government unless they owe a mortgage.

Q: So what might be the tipping point? What will compel governments to start encouraging people to move?

A: I think it’s going to be town by town — some concerned mayor or emergency manager who just decides this is what they’re going to do. It becomes a mission for them, because they are so heartbroken or concerned.

Q: Does all this leave you optimistic about the human ability to adapt, or pessimistic?

A: The archaeology makes me more optimistic. But it’s going to cost a lot, and that’s what we’re not ready to think about. Ancient civilizations have walked away from a lot of infrastructure.

As a species, it’s not coastal climate change that’s going to threaten us. It’s the heat. There’s no place to run from that.

Source: Christopher Flavelle, Bloomberg (Victorville Daily Press)