The Toughest Question in Climate Change: Who Gets Saved?

The federal government has no good way to decide which coastal towns ought to be relocated.

Should this town survive? Let's decide with a contest.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Last fall, two towns at opposite ends of the country entered a new kind of contest run by the federal government. At stake was their survival: Each is being consumed by the rising ocean, and winning money from Washington would mean the chance to move to higher ground.

On the western edge of Alaska, the remote town of Newtok was losing 50 to 100 feet of coastline each year to sea-level rise and melting permafrost. It was about to lose its drinking water, its school and maybe even its airport. Its 350 or so residents had been trying to move to safety for 20 years; in 2003, they obtained new land, about 10 miles to the south.  

QuickTake Climate Change

Four thousand miles away on the Louisiana coast, another town, Isle de Jean Charles, was also starting to drown. It was home to just 25 families, some of whom remained ambivalent about relocating. It wasn’t losing land at the rate of Newtok. Its residents didn’t face the same risk of losing access to key facilities. And they had yet to select a new site, let alone secure the rights to it.   

In January, the government announced its decision: Isle de Jean Charles would get full funding for a move. Newtok would get nothing.

“Don’t get me wrong -- I don’t want nothing against Louisiana,” Romy Cadiente, Newtok’s relocation coordinator, told me by phone. And yet: “Surely you would have thought somebody as far along in the project as we are, we would have got some type of consideration.”

The contest, called the National Disaster Resilience Competition, was the first large-scale federal effort to highlight and support local solutions for coping with climate change. It wound up demonstrating something decidedly less upbeat: The federal government is still struggling to figure out which communities should be moved, and when, and how to pay for it.  

Shishmaref, Alaska, voted this month to move. Photographer: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The importance of answering those questions is shifting from hypothetical to urgent. The Alaskan town of Shishmaref this month became the latest coastal community to vote in favor of relocating; more will follow it. Figuring out who most deserves money to move will only get more contentious as more places raise their hand. If cutting emissions seems like a political nightmare, just wait.

'It Doesn't Make Any Sense'

The resilience competition, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, awarded $1 billion to states, cities and towns that had been hit by major natural disasters and that proposed novel approaches to coping with future ones.    

That level of funding, part of a bill Congress passed in 2013 after Superstorm Sandy, allowed HUD to support projects that would otherwise be hard to find money for, but will become increasingly necessary as the sea level rises and extreme weather worsens. Perhaps the best example is relocation, which has high up-front costs but can save money over time by getting people out of harm’s way.

Isle de Jean Charles illustrates the conundrum nicely. HUD will give Louisiana $48 million to move a few dozen members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe off an island that was slipping under the gulf into custom-designed housing on better land. Try getting Louisiana taxpayers facing a budget crisis and no shortage of people seeking disaster relief to fund a project like that on their own.

The winner: Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Photographer: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

But just as pressing was the situation in Newtok. Home to members of the indigenous Yupik people, the town has become shorthand for the costs of climate change. Geologists warning of erosion had recommended relocating the town as far back as 1984. Newtok has received seven disaster declarations, according to local officials. The Government Accountability Office determined the town to be “in imminent danger." And that was 13 years ago.

By 2017, erosion is expected to drain the pond that provides drinking water for the town. The edges of the airport are collapsing, a potential disaster for a place that can’t be reached by road. The town’s school could be unusable by next year. Washington appeared to notice: President Barack Obama, in a visit to Alaska before attending the Paris climate summit last December, called what’s happening in places like Newtok “a wake-up call,” and “a preview of what will happen to the rest of us.”

So when Alaska’s application on behalf of Newtok and three other towns was rejected, while projects in 10 other states got money, the response wasn’t just anger but incomprehension. “It doesn't make any sense,” said Sally Russell Cox, the state official in charge of Newtok’s application. The decision “simply astonishes me,” Alaska Governor Bill Walker wrote to Julian Castro, the secretary of HUD. Senator Lisa Murkowski, in a letter to Obama, said HUD’s decision “left rural Alaskans looking like simply a backdrop on your pathway to Paris.”

Letter of the Law

What happened? The story behind Newtok’s exclusion turns out to be a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of rigid checklists -- and not one that HUD was eager to tell. Officials who'd been happy to describe their plans for Isle de Jean Charles clammed up when I asked why Alaska was rejected, insisting I file a freedom of information request. I did; three months later, HUD responded with 89 pages of documents, from which it had redacted every scintilla of information that might have answered the question. 

Alaskan officials were less reticent. Ann Gravier, who oversaw the state’s application as Alaska’s director of hazard mitigation, said HUD told her that Alaska had been shut out of the contest primarily because it scored zero points in a category HUD called “leverage” -- the ability of federal money to unlock funds from the state government or other sources.

That makes some sense. The federal government should direct scarce adaptation resources to projects that are most likely to succeed, and a good indicator of likely success is support from the state government. There was just one problem with this explanation: The relocation of Isle de Jean Charles will be funded entirely with federal money because the state hadn’t committed a single dollar. Meanwhile, according to Cox, Newtok had already secured $15 million in state funding.     

The site that Newtok residents want to make their new home. Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Presented with that puzzle, HUD relented, letting me talk to some of the staff involved in the contest on the condition that I not use their names. What they told me does not bode well for divvying up federal adaptation money through scored competitions.

The HUD officials started by noting that federal law prevented them from calling applicants for more information -- for example, to ask whether Isle de Jean Charles or Newtok had chosen a new site. They suggested that the money Alaska provided didn’t qualify as leverage, while Louisiana got a higher score because it promised money for other projects in its application -- even if none of that money was going to Isle de Jean Charles.

In other words, HUD decided which town to move in accordance with the rules, regardless of whether that meant money went to the town with the greatest need, or that had waited the longest, or was the most ready. Those rules may not have made sense, but HUD staff followed them to the letter.

“The people that made the decisions are far away from us; maybe they just don’t have a good understanding of Alaska,” Cox told me. She may not have realized how right she was.

Pick Up the Phone

The inane bureaucracy of funding climate adaptation may not seem like a big deal when the towns competing for money are places few people have ever heard of. But once sea levels rise another foot, the federal government may have to choose between funding the relocation of entire neighborhoods in Galveston, Texas; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Savannah, Georgia; and even Miami. Two feet, and swaths of Boston and Charleston, South Carolina, could be underwater. According to an official with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels could rise nine feet by 2050.

There will almost certainly not be enough money to dyke, pump out or elevate every community that needs it. Nor will there be enough to provide every community the kind of thoughtful, orderly and expensive relocation that HUD has promised Isle de Jean Charles. The federal government will need to choose.      

Flooding in New Jersey in January. It's not just remote towns in Alaska that will need to move. Photographer: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Here’s the problem: If scored competitions are the wrong way to make these decisions, what’s the right way? Leaving it to Congress doesn’t seem promising: A representative’s obligation is to constituents, which means struggles for funding would be decided by who can exert the most pull. Less defensible than a rigid checklist is no checklist.

The better answer may be the most counterintuitive: Instead of restricting the decision-making power of federal bureaucrats, give them more power. The best role for Congress may be to establish the broad criteria that agencies such as HUD must consider (such as the cost and benefits, the availability of other alternatives, and the level of need and community commitment), then provide adequate and predictable funding and get out of the way.

If that seems insane, remember that there’s no response to climate change that can possibly make everybody happy; we’ve waited too long to cut emissions, and many more Americans will be forced from their homes. The burden of choosing who gets federal money has to reside somewhere, and it might as well be someplace like HUD. Congress’s directions should be simple: Make the best decisions you can. And maybe even pick up the phone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Christopher Flavelle at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.