Climate Change, Migration and International Justice

Environmental impacts related to climate change are affecting countries around the world with approximately 25 million people newly displaced every year. In the Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the issue is especially pressing, as both livelihoods and the physical integrity of the islands are threatened by sea level rise, floods and changes in rainfall patterns. Innovative solutions, such as climate passports are needed to enable people to migrate with dignity.

“The impacts of climate change are being felt in the Pacific SIDS and people are already moving as a result of floods, storms and unpredictable rain but many can’t move as they do not have the cash or a permit to move internationally. It is vital that mitigation efforts limit the global rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees, but even if that is achieved it will be necessary to adapt to a changing environment,” stated Dr. Robert Oakes, Senior migration expert at UNU-EHS at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 24), which is currently taking place in Katowice, Poland.

Recent research by the United Nations University, Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) shows that in the period from 2005 to 2015, over 90 per cent of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu were affected by negative environmental conditions such as floods, storms and irregular rain. Many households are already using migration as a way of coping with the increased risk, with 12 per cent of movements mainly attributed to environmental change.

At the same time many people in these countries stated that they would like to migrate but are unable to move internationally as they lacked both the financial means and did not fulfill legal requirements, such as appropriate visas. Under projected climate change scenarios this lack of options will lead to more movements from smaller outer islands to the capital islands, potentially recreating or intensifying existing risks as increasing populations further strain finite resources such as land and water. Innovative solutions are needed to support those who would like to migrate internationally.

One such an adaptive solution could be the introduction of a climate passport. It would be modelled on the basis of the Nansen passport for stateless persons, which enabled hundreds of thousands of people to find refuge in safe states after the First World War. The climate passport should initially grant access and rights equivalent to citizens’ rights in safe countries to the populations of SIDS whose territory is at risk of becoming uninhabitable as a result of climate change.

“The urgency of the situation for Pacific SIDS and the relatively small numbers of people affected means that granting affected peoples the right to move to new areas is a viable way to enable them to enjoy sustainable and dignified lives. Countries with considerable responsibility for climate change, should open their doors as host countries to people with a climate passport” said Prof. Messner, Director of UNU-EHS and Co-chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, which recently published a policy paper to promote the idea of a climate passport. “This plan would represent a form of climate justice as people could move to the richer countries which are most responsible for the emissions that are causing climate change. The climate passport could represent a beacon of humanity, providing an example of how to facilitate voluntary migration, while protecting the rights of migrants.”

The debate about the deep impacts of climate change on many humans worldwide are resulting in a new generation of climate policies, which go beyond technological solutions and innovations triggering decarbonization. Global justice problems caused by global warming require normative innovations.

“In times of growing `Our country first` movements, the idea of a climate passport seems to be a counter-intuitive suggestion,” remarked Prof. Messner. “But it is a simple, plausible concept, building on the `polluter pays` principle and protecting the dignity of the most vulnerable people affected by severe impacts of global warming.”

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