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As climate change leads to the flooding of whole countries, a climate passport may allow the most distressed to settle in countries that have been largely responsible for the impact

About a third of the land in Dhoblat Shibpur village on Sagar Island in the Indian Sundarbans has sunk under the sea in less than 20 years (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

About a third of the land in Dhoblat Shibpur village on Sagar Island in the Indian Sundarbans has sunk under the sea in less than 20 years (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Nearly half a million people lost their countries during World War 1 and had to use the Nansen Passport till they could get citizenship of one country or another. A higher number may lose their countries as the sea level rises due to climate change. They should get a climate passport, said Dirk Messner, Director of the United Nations University Institute for the Environment and Human Security and Co-chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change.

Messner and his colleague Robert Oakes at the Bonn-based institute agree that it is still difficult to single out climate change as the cause for migration in many cases, such as the move of many Africans to Europe.

Nevertheless they point out that 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 islands themselves are threatened by sea level rise, floods and changes in rainfall patterns. Already, people are being forced to move. “Innovative solutions, such as climate passports, are needed to enable people to migrate with dignity.”

Even if governments can agree on stricter control of greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the atmosphere, “it will be necessary to adapt to a changing environment,” Oakes said, speaking with Messner on the sidelines of the December 2-14 UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland.

Their idea has been published as part of a policy paper to the German Advisory Council on Global Change.

Recent research by the institute within the UN University shows that from 2005 to 2015, over 90% of households in Kiribati and Tuvalu were affected by floods, storms and irregular rain. Researchers found that 12% of the people moving homes in these island nations are being forced to do so, mainly due to environmental change. Given the size of these countries, few can move inland, and most are looking for new homes in Australia or New Zealand. Those countries have a quota of taking in a few hundred migrants from nearby Pacific island countries every year, nowhere near enough.

Many residents in the two countries told the researchers they would like to migrate but are unable to move internationally as they lacked the money to do so, nor did they get appropriate visas. “Under projected climate change scenarios this lack of options will lead to more movements from smaller outer islands to the capital islands,” Messner said, “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.”

Sitting between Messner and Oakes, Zoé Touteniaki Ayong, an official from Vanuatu, said the last thing people of her country wanted to do was to move, but they may be left with no option if their entire country went under water.

A rising sea has already reduced the land area in all these countries, as it has all along the coast in South Asia. In the Sundarbans alone, a study led by Nilanjan Ghosh of WWF and the Observer Research Foundation has estimated that 1.5 million of the 4.5 million people living in the Indian part of the world’s largest mangrove forest will be forcibly displaced by sea level rise. Many have been displaced already. See: Rising sea swamps island along Bengal coast

Migration solution

It is clear that people displaced in this manner will not find it easy to be admitted to other countries, leave alone get citizenship. That is why Messner and Oakes propose “one such adaptive solution” as “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.”

Messner urged: “The climate passport should initially grant access and rights equivalent to citizens’ rights in safe countries to the populations of SIDS (small island developing states) 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.”

By countries with considerable responsibility, Messner meant industrialised countries that are responsible for around 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the Industrial Age. These emissions – mainly of carbon dioxide – are warming the atmosphere, thus causing climate change.

“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,” Messner underlined. “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 need now is for a “new generation of climate policies,” Messner added, “which go beyond technological solutions and innovations triggering decarbonisation. 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. 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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