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Obama's Final Push to Adapt to Climate Change

Saving the toughest question for last: Which towns should the government help move?

With little more than a month left in office, the Barack Obama administration is quietly trying to accomplish one last big thing on climate change: creating a policy for relocating entire towns threatened by extreme weather and rising seas.

The White House has asked 11 federal agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding establishing what it calls "an interagency working group on community-led managed retreat and voluntary relocation." The group's goal would be to "develop a framework for managed retreat" -- including deciding which agency should be in charge, identifying obstacles to relocation and how to remove them, and coordinating with communities that already want to move. The group is supposed to develop an "action plan" within nine months of the agencies signing on.

The group would be headed by a representative from the Department of Agriculture, with a vice chairman from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to the memo, which is being circulated by the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Other agencies that have been asked to participate include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Noreen Nielsen, a spokeswoman for the council, declined to comment on the memo.

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The effort means the Obama administration has decided to tackle possibly the most controversial (and least politically rewarding) aspect of climate change: the notion that a significant number of Americans will eventually need to move. The memo explains the need for a federal policy this way:

As more communities consider managed retreat and relocation as options of last resort to protect human life and avoid future property damage, there is a critical need to better define the Federal role in these efforts and to coordinate Federal assistance for managed retreat and relocation at the national level.

Lest the image of Americans leaving their homes en masse seem like a downer, the White House frames the idea in upbeat terms, calling retreat and relocation "proactive hazard risk reduction strategies for communities threatened by repeated natural disasters." Well, sort of upbeat: It defines retreat as moving infrastructure or homes, and relocation as a form of retreat that entails "a complete abandonment of that community."

The memo's authors were apparently alert to the risk of alarming people. The document stresses that relocation will only happen when "all or part of a community chooses to move"; in the version I looked at, the word "voluntary" appears 26 times.

Yet setting such a policy is a logical extension of steps the Obama administration has already taken for adapting to climate change. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a $48 million plan to move a Louisiana town threatened by sea-level rise, the first such project funded by the federal government. It rejected the same request from a village in Alaska facing similar risk, illustrating the need for clear criteria on who to help. 

A coordinated federal response can push local governments to act, according to Chad Berginnis, director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. "Once federal leadership happens, then states and communities are more likely to follow," he told me. "It's going to help drive the message home: Wake up, communities, you have a significant issue on your hands."

Something else pushing the federal government to act: the prospect of a real-estate crash in coastal areas. In April, Sean Becketti, chief economist for Freddie Mac, warned that sea-level rise could cause home prices to fall suddenly. "Will the value of the house -- and all the houses around it -- plunge the first time a lender refuses to make a mortgage on a nearby house?" Becketti wrote.

It's anyone's guess whether this effort will survive into the Donald Trump administration. The memo says that agencies should assign people to the working group who are "career-level staff," who will presumably remain in their jobs once Trump takes office (unlike political appointees). It also says the group can only be amended or terminated with the written agreement of each participating agency.

That wouldn't prevent Trump from stopping the initiative. What's less clear is whether he'll want to. (His transition team didn't respond to an e-mail requesting comment.) Groups that favor smaller government, such as the Heritage Foundation, want Congress to spend less money on disaster recovery. And understandably so: According to the memo, the federal government has paid out $357 billion over the past decade responding to extreme weather events and wildfires. An obvious way to cut that spending is to have fewer people living in harm's way.

Moreover, the areas of the country most likely to require relocation -- at least as measured by repeat claims for federal disaster assistance -- also tend to vote Republican. If congressional delegations from Texas, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida or Alaska begin asking for more help, a Trump administration may want to have something to tell them. "We've got a group working on that" is a useful answer.  

QuickTake Climate Change

Yet admitting that the federal government ought to have a policy on relocation implies that something is making relocation necessary -- perhaps something that has to do with releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That, in turn, would create some interesting tension with Trump's pledges to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and "bring the coal industry back 100 percent."

But even if the Trump administration cancels this effort, the forces compelling it -- rising sea levels, more frequent and severe storms, Congress's limited appetite to keep paying for disaster relief -- will not go away. At some point, the federal government will have to come up with criteria for deciding which towns to help relocate, and when, and how, and how to pay for it. Inside government, that conversation has now started. It won't stop.

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

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