Issue 5/2018

A passport for climate refugees

Joachim Wille, 17 Oct 18
Faced with rising sea levels, the inhabitants of some island states will soon be left with no choice but to leave their country behind. Advisors to the German government are proposing a system to ensure “dignified and safe migration” for those affected.

The number of climate refugees worldwide is already estimated at just under 20 million. These are people who have lost their homes due to drought, crop failure, sea-level rise or flooding, forcing them to relocate. By 2050, this figure could rise to almost 150 million, according to a report published by the World Bank this spring. The study identifies sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America as the worst-affected areas.

Most of these refugees remain in their home countries, with only a small minority seeking to rebuild their lives abroad. However, the inhabitants of low-lying Pacific island states such as Tuvalu or Kiribati may have no choice in the matter – if the sea continues to rise at the current rate, they will be forced to emigrate.

For refugees like these, an expert body has recently proposed a “climate passport” granting them citizenship rights in other nations. The document is modelled on the Nansen Passport for stateless persons, which enabled hundreds of thousands of displaced people to seek refuge in safe countries in the wake of World War I.

Under the proposal, detailed in the policy paper “Just & In-Time Climate Policy” by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), climate passports would initially be issued to inhabitants of island states, but subsequently also to citizens of other countries affected by climate change, to ensure “dignified and safe migration”. According to the paper, the refugees should primarily be taken in by the countries with the highest historical carbon emissions – in other words, industrialised nations in Europe and North America.

New momentum for climate justice

Contributing to the political debate with unconventional ideas of this sort is part of the job of government advisors. But in light of the debate on refugees currently raging in Germany, there is little hope of the Merkel government formally bringing up the proposal at the forthcoming climate summit in Katowice in December, as requested by its authors. Even environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) responded cautiously to the ideas, claiming that her main priority is to focus on climate action.

Nevertheless, the policy paper brings new momentum to the debate on climate justice. The citizens of Tuvalu have barely contributed to climate change, but are among those most affected by its consequences. It is unjust for the interests of climate victims not to be taken seriously, warned WGBU co-chair Dirk Messner, calling for enhanced legal protection of those affected. The advisory council calls on the Federal Government to offer financial support to several pioneering lawsuits brought against corporations that share the blame for climate change by people and communities suffering from the effects of global warming.

Meanwhile, the group emphasises that climate justice must also include a stronger focus on the social aspects of the energy transformation. Accordingly, it advocates the creation of a “transformation fund” devoted to supporting structural adaptation processes, for example in lignite mining areas, financed by a moderate increase to inheritance tax and carbon pricing measures. EUR 40 billion a year could be mobilised in this way, the experts calculate. A great deal of money – but in light of the growing responsibilities of climate policy both domestically and abroad, perhaps just enough.