We ru­ined your coun­try. Welcome to ours.

Cli­mate change will dis­place mil­lions upon mil­lions. Make the na­tions at fault take them in, says le­gal scholar Michael B. Ger­rard.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - michael.ger­rard@law.columbia.edu Michael B. Ger­rard, as­so­ciate fac­ulty chair at Columbia Univer­sity’s Earth In­sti­tute, is the An­drew Sabin pro­fes­sor of pro­fes­sional prac­tice and di­rec­tor of the Sabin Cen­ter for Cli­mate Change Law at Columbia Law School.

To­ward the end of this cen­tury, if cur­rent trends are not re­versed, large parts of Bangladesh, the Philip­pines, In­done­sia, Pak­istan, Egypt and Viet­nam, among other coun­tries, will be un­der wa­ter. Some small is­land na­tions, such as Kiri­bati and the Mar­shall Is­lands, will be close to dis­ap­pear­ing en­tirely. Swaths of Africa from Sierra Leone to Ethiopia will be turn­ing into desert. Glaciers in the Hi­malayas and the An­des, on which en­tire re­gions de­pend for drink­ing wa­ter, will be melt­ing away. Many hab­it­able parts of the world will no longer be able to sup­port agri­cul­ture or pro­duce clean wa­ter.

The peo­ple who live there will not sit pas­sively by while they and their chil­dren starve to death. Tens or hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple will try very hard to go some­where they can sur­vive. They will be hun­gry, thirsty, hot— and des­per­ate. If the search for safety in­volves piling into per­ilous boats and en­dur­ing mis­er­able and dan­ger­ous jour­neys, they will do it. They will cross borders, re­gard­less of whether they are welcome. And in their des­per­a­tion, they could be­come vi­o­lent: Forced mi­gra­tion can ex­ac­er­bate eth­nic and po­lit­i­cal ten­sions. Stud­ies show that more heat tends to in­crease vi­o­lence.

The United Na­tions says the max­i­mum tol­er­a­ble in­crease in global av­er­age tem­per­a­tures is 3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit above pre-in­dus­trial con­di­tions. (Small is­land na­tions ar­gued for a much lower fig­ure; at 3.6 de­grees, they’ll be gone.) But the prom­ises that na­tions are mak­ing a head of the U.N. cli­mate sum­mit in Paris in De­cem­ber would still, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Energy Agency, lead the av­er­age tem­per­a­ture to rise by about 4.7 de­grees be­fore the end of the cen­tury. Those prom­ises are vol­un­tary and non­bind­ing, and if they aren’t kept, the ther­mome­ter could go much higher. Which means our chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will be con­fronting a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis un­like any­thing the world has ever faced.

Ab­sent the po­lit­i­cal will to pre­vent it, the least we can do is to start plan­ning for it.

Rather than leav­ing vast num­bers of vic­tims of a warmer world stranded, with­out any place al­low­ing them in, in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries ought to pledge to take on a share of the dis­placed pop­u­la­tion equal to how much each na­tion has his­tor­i­cally con­trib­uted to emis­sions of the green­house gases that are caus­ing this cri­sis. Ac­cord­ing to the World Re­sources In­sti­tute, be­tween 1850 and 2011, the United States was the source of 27 per­cent of the world’s car­bon diox­ide emis­sions; the Euro­pean Union, 25 per­cent; China, 11 per­cent; Rus­sia, 8 per­cent; and Ja­pan, 4 per­cent.

To make cal­cu­lat­ing easy, let’s as­sume that 100 mil­lion peo­ple will need new homes out­side their own coun­tries by 2050. (That num­ber could be way off in ei­ther di­rec­tion — we

won’t know un­til it hap­pens.) Un­der a for­mula based on his­toric green­house gas emis­sions, the United States would take in 27 mil­lion peo­ple; Europe, 25 mil­lion; and so on. Even as a rough es­ti­mate, this gives a sense of the mag­ni­tude of the prob­lem: The United States has been grant­ing law­ful-per­ma­nent-res­i­dent sta­tus to only about 1 mil­lion peo­ple a year for sev­eral decades.

None of this would be pop­u­lar, but it would be fair. Cli­mate change re­sults from the cu­mu­la­tive emis­sions of green­house gases all over the world, be­cause the gases stay in the at­mos­phere for a cen­tury or more. In­ter­na­tional law rec­og­nizes that if pol­lu­tion crosses na­tional borders, the coun­try where it orig­i­nated is re­spon­si­ble for the dam­ages. That af­firms what we all learned in the schoolyard: If you make a mess, you clean it up. The coun­tries that spewed (or al­lowed or en­cour­aged their cor­po­ra­tions to spew) these chem­i­cals into the air, and es­pe­cially the coun­tries that grew rich while do­ing so, should take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the con­se­quences of their ac­tions. If they want to re­duce the num­ber of peo­ple in need of new homes, they should re­duce their emis­sions.

Find­ing suit­able land for re­set­tle­ment will be im­mensely dif­fi­cult, be­cause it is not only a mat­ter of re­spon­si­bil­ity or acreage. A pop­u­la­tion that needs to move may want to go to a place that is ge­o­graph­i­cally sim­i­lar to where it came from and where it can make the same sort of liv­ing as be­fore, such as from fish­ing, farm­ing or herd­ing. Its mem­bers may also wish to go to­gether and re-cre­ate their old com­mu­ni­ties. Yet most of the hab­it­able places on Earth are al­ready in­hab­ited, and mov­ing a siz­able pop­u­la­tion into an area that is al­ready pop­u­lated is not so easy. The most prom­i­nent ex­am­ple of such a move­ment in mod­ern history is Is­rael — a pro­ject that has not gone smoothly. Tech­nolo­gies such as de­sali­na­tion can make more ar­eas hab­it­able, but they typ­i­cally take a great deal of money and energy, the very re­source we have failed to con­serve in the first place.

This prob­lem will also re­quire a new le­gal so­lu­tion: Un­der cur­rent law, those dis­placed by cli­mate change have no rec­og­nized le­gal sta­tus. The 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion ap­plies only to peo­ple who are flee­ing be­cause of a well-founded fear of per­se­cu­tion. Non­bind­ing guide­lines have ap­peared on the treat­ment of peo­ple who cross borders as a re­sult of cli­mate change (the Nansen Prin­ci­ples) and who are dis­placed in­ter­nally (the Penin­sula Prin­ci­ples), but these have no force of law. A few coun­tries have spe­cial ar­range­ments to ad­mit peo­ple from cer­tain other coun­tries. They aren’t specif­i­cally for cli­mate-change refugees, but they could be used in that sit­u­a­tion. For ex­am­ple, the United States has “com­pacts of free as­so­ci­a­tion” with the Mar­shall Is­lands, Mi­crone­sia and Palau to al­low their cit­i­zens to come here. Aus­tralia and New Zealand have very small guest-worker pro­grams. Tem­po­rary pro­tected sta­tus or hu­man­i­tar­ian visas might be avail­able to some peo­ple for a lim­ited time.

As­sum­ing that most na­tions aren’t ac­tu­ally in­ter­ested in tak­ing in or­ders of mag­ni­tude more mi­grants than they do now, the vast ma­jor­ity of those who will be dis­placed by cli­mate change will sim­ply have no place out­side their own coun­tries where they can go. The largest num­ber of dis­placed peo­ple is likely to be from Bangladesh, but it’s hard to imag­ine that they will be wel­comed in In­dia, which has built a barbed-wire fence along parts of the bor­der.

Just south­west of In­dia is the low-ly­ing is­land na­tion of Mal­dives. Be­fore its pres­i­dent, Mo­hamed Nasheed, was de­posed by a mil­i­tary coup in 2012, he rose to global promi­nence as a voice of en­dan­gered is­land na­tions by stag­ing an un­der­wa­ter cab­i­net meet­ing to high­light his coun­try’s likely fate. Last year, just be­fore the mil­i­tary im­pris­oned him again, he told me about his mes­sage to de­vel­oped na­tions. “You can dras­ti­cally re­duce your green­house gas emis­sions so that the seas do not rise so much,” he said. “Or when we show upon your shores in our boats, you can let us in. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.”

Trag­i­cally, if to­day is any fore­taste, the most likely out­come is that we will let many of them drown. Wit­ness the spec­ta­cle of hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple flee­ing civil war in Syria and re­pres­sion in Eritrea; mak­ing their way to a coun­try with­out much of a gov­ern­ment, Libya; and there be­ing re­cruited by un­scrupu­lous traf­fick­ers who put them on boats pointed to Italy. Thou­sands per­ish on these un­safe, over­packed ves­sels (whose crews of­ten aban­don them), and those who sur­vive the pas­sage are not ex­actly wel­comed with open arms. Europe is in a furor over who will take them in, and anti-im­mi­grant fer­vor tends to rise with the num­ber of peo­ple try­ing to en­ter, mak­ing a res­o­lu­tion es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult.

Like­wise, many peo­ple flee­ing poverty in Bangladesh and op­pres­sion in Burma are launch­ing boats to In­done­sia, Malaysia and Thai­land, and at least ini­tially were be­ing turned away. Aus­tralia — a log­i­cal des­ti­na­tion for peo­ple from the small Pa­cific is­lands — in­ter­cepts in­com­ing boats and sends their oc­cu­pants to camps it has es­tab­lished in Pa­pua New Guinea, Nauru and (lately) Cam­bo­dia.

Maybe the idea of as­sign­ing refugees to the na­tions that caused the cli­mate to change can spur a less-pes­simistic fu­ture. If we don’t want mil­lions of peo­ple seek­ing haven here — or dy­ing while they try — then the United States and other in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries need to be­come far more ag­gres­sive in cut­ting their green­house gas emis­sions. There is still a lit­tle time to re­duce the dam­age. If not, it won’t just be en­vi­ron­men­tal; it will be hu­man, too.



A cap­sized boat used by mi­grants from Syria who tried to travel to Greece floats off the coast of Tur­key last week. Author­i­ties said six peo­ple died and about 70 were res­cued.

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