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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

Opinion| Wanted: A passport for climate change refugees

Based on the Nansen passport, this document would offer people existentially threatened by global warming the option of having access to – and rights equivalent to citizens’ rights in – largely safe countries. States with considerable historical and present-day greenhouse-gas emissions, which therefore bear a considerable amount of responsibility for climate change and its impacts, should offer their services as host countries.

analysis Updated: Dec 24, 2018 11:54 IST
Dirk Messner
Dirk Messner
Protesters take part in the March for the Climate on the streets of Katowice, where the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 is held, December 8
Protesters take part in the March for the Climate on the streets of Katowice, where the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 is held, December 8(REUTERS)
         

The turmoil World War 1 triggered led to an unprecedented refugee crisis. State systems collapsed, borders were heedlessly moved, millions of people lost their national identities through civil war, expulsion or flight. In particular, countless people were on the move without valid identification documents, and therefore without citizen rights. In 1922, in order to alleviate this humanitarian hardship, Fridtjof Nansen — who was, at the time, High Commissioner for Refugees at the League of Nations — invented an international legal instrument to protect migrants. It was a passport for stateless persons to be recognised by as many countries as possible that would grant the bearer access to the respective state territory. This farsighted, normative innovation, which was known as the Nansen Passport, was honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. It gave hundreds of thousands of people the right to hospitality in safe states. By 1942, as many as 52 nations had recognised the Nansen passport in principle.

In the 21st century, we are at the beginning of a different refugee crisis, which could ultimately lead to even greater suffering. We are talking about anthropogenic global warming, which is raising sea levels, changing the global water cycle, aggravating extreme weather regimes, shifting entire vegetation zones, and thus threatening the life-support systems of hundreds of millions of people. Even today, at a time when the planetary surface temperature has only risen by about 1°C, climate-induced migration movements are already taking place. The refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe triggered by the civil war in Syria could well be causally linked to climate change, because the worst drought in a millennium in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ has been aggravating social and political tensions in the region since 2011. The World Bank estimates that 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America will have been displaced by climatic impacts within their own countries by 2050 if no ambitious climate action is taken.

There is certainly no denying the causal link between man-made climate change and the existential threat to low-lying island states. Even if limiting global warming to 2°C were to succeed, which would imply that carbon emissions be reduced to zero by 2050, a rise in sea levels of around one metre would deluge entire territories — and thus wipe out nation states, national identities, citizen rights in the conventional sense of international law. Sea level rise, land erosion, salt water intrusion into the ground water would affect 12-22 million people living in small island states, destroying their territories, homes, and future perspectives. These peoples would then only be able to ensure their survival by leaving their disappearing countries.

It is unbearable to imagine millions of climate migrants in the coming decades becoming dependent on criminals trafficking organisations like the ones currently causing such terrible human misery in the Mediterranean. The German Advisory Council on Global Change, therefore, proposes a climate passport for migrants as a key instrument of a humane climate policy. Based on the Nansen passport, this document would offer people existentially threatened by global warming the option of having access to — and rights equivalent to citizens’ rights in — largely safe countries. In the first phase, the climate passport would open up early, voluntary and humane migration pathways to the populations of small island states whose territory is likely to become uninhabitable as a result of climate change. In the medium term, the passport should also be available to people under massive threat in other countries, including internally displaced people.

States with considerable historical and present-day greenhouse gas emissions, which, therefore, bear a considerable amount of responsibility for climate change and its impacts, should offer their services as host countries. In times of our country first movements, this proposal might sound radical. But is simple and very plausible, based on the idea of international justice and aiming at avoiding chaotic, unregulated climate induced migration which might result in international instabilities.

Affected individuals should be able to decide freely whether and when they would like to migrate using safe and early migration options. The German Advisory Council recommends identifying individual (groups of) island states that are objectively especially threatened by the potential loss of their territory with the help of a scientific commission and using the expertise of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Their inhabitants would then be entitled to a climate passport without any complex, individual testing.

In order to ensure a fair regulation of climate-induced migration, the WBGU stresses the key role of the polluter-pays principle. It should form the basis for deciding which nations should accept people with a climate passport. Countries whose emissions make a major contribution to climate change should offer opportunities for, and rights to, a dignified future for those who have suffered existential loss. These countries bear a considerable responsibility for the causes of migration by people harmed by climate change and should be the first to take on obligations to grant entry options to the bearers of the climate passport. The three states or regions with the highest shares of global cumulative CO2 emissions (1890-2011) are the US (27% of global cumulative emissions), the European Union countries (25%), China (11%), and Russia (8%).

Dirk Messner is director United Nations University - Institute for Environment and Human Security based in Bonn and co-chair German Advisory Council on Global Change

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 24, 2018 10:24 IST