Kira Vinke, Stephen M. Gardiner, Juliana Gaertner, Fanny Thornton, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Climate Migration in Dignity


Globally, the 1.5-2°C limit was accepted as the mitigation target to which all countries have to adhere. For adaptation to unavoidable climate change, however, the targets are dispersed, highly contextual and sometimes even contradictory. We need to set specific goals for global adaptation or else risk failure. Our proposal for such a minimum adaptation target: Legitimizing managed migration out of all areas that will become too dangerous to live in.

Climate change is already inducing species migration, and rising emissions will accelerate the speed and scale of this process (Pecl et al. 2017). Due to changing ecosystems and shifting climatic zones, many species populations may no longer find sufficient means to survive in situ, resulting in terrestrial movement towards the poles and to higher altitudes (Pecl et al. 2017). Governments have taken action to support animals in migrating across different landscapes and obstacles by building wildlife bridges and corridors (Glista, DeVault, and DeWoody 2009; Samways and Pryke 2016). In contrast, human migration is often deterred, and not infrequently punished, through the construction of physical obstacles, such as walls or fences, the unlawful detention of migrants and the separation of their families (McLeman 2019; Garcı́a Hernández 2017; Hagan, Eschbach, and Rodriguez 2008; Brabeck, Lykes, and Hunter 2014; Godenau and López-Sala 2016). However, taking into account the growing body of evidence on the compounding risks inherent to climate change (IPCC 2022), one of the few feasible global adaptation strategies available to many humans will be to move out of exposed areas. Contrary to the idea that climate migration is a “myth” (Boas et al. 2019), recent research points to the fact that without emissions reductions or migration, a large part of the global population will be located outside the “human climate niche” (Xu et al. 2020).

Existing international institutions or instruments support migrants’ rights, dignity and wellbeing at best partially, rendering migration an often-ineffective strategy, one that ensures survival but that also frequently perpetuates inequalities and deepens impoverishment (Betts 2013). Therefore, migration flows connected to emerging climate impacts will ultimately require institutional innovation and improved governance approaches. New legal instruments will be necessary to manage possibly larger and more abrupt forms of survival migration or to provide legal pathways to migrate in anticipation of uninhabitability (Biermann and Boas 2008; WBGU 2018).

We suggest as one measure the introduction of a legal document that would permit citizens of territories that are at high risk of becoming uninhabitable due to climate change impacts to live, work and eventually gain full political rights in other countries, including those that have substantially contributed to global emissions. The idea has already found some traction, with initial discussion by Heyward and Ödalen (Heyward and Ödalen 2013) and the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) (WBGU 2018). It follows and commemorates the humanitarian leadership of Nobel Peace Laureate and Polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen who, in the aftermath of World War I, facilitated the establishment of the so-called “Nansen Passport” system for the protection of stateless persons. We suggest that a document akin to the Nansen Passport ought to be part of the deliberations and drive towards solutions within institutions and processes already with a mandate to respond to climate-linked human mobility. We are thinking, in particular, of the Taskforce on Displacement, incorporated under the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (UNFCCC), the Santiago network, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, those involved in implementing the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, as well as relevant other parties – nation states, international organisations, etc. With the right support, the model could gain momentum even if only a limited group of states would accept the document as part of fulfilling their obligations under the UNFCCC and in solidarity with countries severely affected by transboundary damages. In this paper, we consider climate change-linked passport-type schemes already proposed but situate these within the concept of uninhabitability in an effort to stimulate further discussion about the scientific, legal and ethical grounds for a climate passport-type instrument.

Responding to Migration

Large- and small-scale human migration has occurred throughout history for various reasons, including political upheaval, conflict, natural and man-made disasters, livelihoods loss and economic recessions (Haas, Castles, and Miller 2019). Broadly speaking, human mobility occurs on a spectrum ranging from forced displacement to voluntary migration, and for reasons of sudden or slow drivers, as well as across and within national boundaries. In the climate change context three types of mobility have garnered a lot of attention: migration, displacement and planned relocation (UNFCCC 2011). The line between what is voluntary, forced or planned is, in reality, often rather blurred, however. In light of the conceptual obscurity inherent to the topic, we use migration as the umbrella term for the various forms of human mobility in this paper. Where formal migration management is concerned, three strategies strike us as having been historically predominant: 1) ordering/planning relocation in often top-down manner, 2) rejecting or deterring human mobility, not least where crossing borders is concerned, as well as 3) enabling the movement of people, including through the international legalization of transboundary movement.

The first strategy, top-down planned relocations of communities, has predominantly been used by governments to effect development projects: dams, mines, slum-upgrades or other objectives often connected to the resource sector. In the past, planned relocation frequently did not lead to positive outcomes for the communities involved. On the contrary, with commonly little community involvement throughout the process, relocations have led to social fragmentation, loss of livelihoods or alienation at points of destination (Viratkapan and Perera 2006; Cernea 2000; Fullilove 1996). Comparatively, large-scale relocations of communities for coal and other mining projects, in particular, have frequently failed to consider local realities and have led to detrimental consequences for people (Owen and Kemp 2016; Ess 2019). Moreover, human rights violations during mining-related relocations have been reported from different regions of the world, particularly, but not solely, under authoritarian forms of governance (Spohr 2016). This dark history is one to avoid in the community relocations driven by climate change impacts now already underway in some locations around the world (Tabe 2019).

Entrapment in precarity is the issue in the second strategy we wish to highlight. Restrictive border policies have repeatedly led to humanitarian disasters where access to safe migration corridors is cut off. Infamously, the Evian conference in 1938, which aimed for a multilateral agreement to give asylum to Jewish refugees, failed – leaving millions of persecuted Jews without an escape route from Nazism (Thies 2017; Wyman 1992). In the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis following the Rwandan Genocide, more than 50,000 migrants died due to lack of food and disease outbreaks in refugee camps that provided no way out (Wagner 2009; Wilkinson 1997). Between 2014 and early 2019, more than 15,000 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean (IOM 2019; Last and Spijkerboer 2014), an ongoing situation and one linked to Europe’s restrictive border policies. In recent times, groups of migrants fleeing from Central America to the United States because of gang violence, economic depression and not least severe drought (OCHA 2018; UN 2018) have also been stopped at the US-Mexican border following a zero-tolerance approach of the US government. The Trump Administration prosecuted all individuals who illegally crossed the border, regardless of whether they were applying for asylum or were accompanied by children (Congressional Research Service 2019). The resulting detentions led to the separation of families – more than 2,600 children were removed from their parents and placed in shelters under unsanitary conditions or with sponsors, some of whom could not be tracked down and went missing (Nixon 2018). This situation has only partially been rectified by the Biden Administration. These notorious examples illustrate that hindering people from crossing international borders in the face of danger results in great human suffering. Large-scale humanitarian disasters could increasingly occur in the context of rising climate impacts if relief efforts fail and safe migration is prevented. Such developments could not only limit human development, but also contribute to rising insecurity in climate vulnerable countries.

On the other end of the spectrum, the inter-war Nansen Passport scheme is illustrative of the third migration management strategy we have noted, legal measures supportive of migration, especially in times of crisis. After the end of World War I, the first High Commissioner for Refugees of the League of Nations, Fridtjof Nansen, hosted the Intergovernmental Conference on Identity Certificates for Russian Refugees in July of 1922, which was attended by representatives of 16 nations (White 2017). Mandated in particular with the repatriation of stateless Russian refugees and overseeing a negligible budget, Nansen effectively utilized the conference to get participating states to agree on a scheme by which each would recognize identity papers issued to eligible persons without naturalizing them. The so-called Nansen Passport was born. It was effective between 1922 and 1942 and its protection eventually extended to other persecuted and stateless groups, including Armenians and Jewish people and was accepted by 52 countries (Hieromyni 2003). It was issued for one year with the possibility of extension in the countries that acknowledged the document and later by the League of Nations itself. Despite the popular designation it attracted, the document was not actually a passport nor did it confer rights or obligations inherent to citizenship, although it enabled people to travel and obtain legal residence (Meyer 2009). Importantly, it not only offered individual protection but also had greater positive societal effects. For example, it enabled its recipients to integrate into labor markets instead of being forced to take up informal work or suffer unemployment. However, not legally equal to citizenship, it rightfully received criticism for creating second-class citizens, since holders lacked essential civil and political rights, such as the right to vote. Among the 450,000 recipients of the Nansen Passport were ballet dancer Anna Pawlowa, photographer Robert Capa, modernist painter Marc Chagall, novelist Vladimir Nabokov, and the composer Igor Stravinsky (Huntford 2001; Wolff 2017). Creating legal pathways for migration out of crisis regions is a pillar of protection for refugees or similar persons. Other examples of granting protection in times of crises exist. For example, when Ukrainian refugees left the country fleeing Russia’s war of aggression in 2022, the European Temporary Protection Directive was evoked (2001/55/EC), in order to grant temporary protection in European countries without lengthy bureaucratic asylum procedures. Also, the 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria has raised demands by the diaspora to provide quick responses and humanitarian visas. However, despite these positive examples, the relevant norms, which largely emerged after the two World Wars, have not been further developed to meet the challenges of a world in transition, something we argue for here.

Population Shifts under Climate Change

Failures and successes of past migration management provide valuable insights for preventative measures that could shape the international migration regime to enable effective governance of human mobility in a changing climate. Contrary to the perspective that climate migration is a myth (Boas et al. 2019), climate change impacts are already materializing in the livelihoods of subsistence farmers, fishermen and nomadic pastoralists, or are indirectly contributing to other social, political or economic pressures, which in turn can influence migration (McLeman 2019; Vinke 2019; IPCC 2022). For example, conflicts in two of the three largest source countries of refugees in 2017, South Sudan and Syria, were at least indirectly linked to climate-related environmental change, aggravating tensions in the region (Kelley et al. 2015; UNHCR 2018; Maystadt, Calderone, and You 2015). While observed climate change impacts are contributing to migration decisions, it is not yet clear how exactly climate change will shape global migration patterns. Moreover, the ability to migrate is heavily constrained by the vulnerabilities that are amplified by the effects of climate change on the household in the first place. Viviane Clement et al. (2021) lay out three scenarios for climate-induced internal migration in Latin America, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa until 2050, ranging from 216 million in a pessimistic high emissions and unequal development (RCP 8.5 and SSP4) scenario to 44 to 113 million who will have to move in a lower-emissions (RCP 2.6, SSP4) scenario (Viviane Clement et al. 2021). Many of those displaced will come from traditional small-scale agriculture or fisheries, with few skills to match urban labour markets. Providing training and education opportunities to diversify incomes will be crucial, but is a tall order, given the scale of potentially affected persons. While these scenarios were considering internal displacement, which is anticipated to make up a larger share of climate-related movements (also IPCC 2022), it is unlikely that in densely populated and poor countries all population redistributions will successfully take place within national boundaries. In some regions, such as low-lying small island states or around some parts of the densely populated tropical zones around the equator international migration could become the only viable form of adaptation if emissions do not swiftly decrease (Storlazzi et al. 2018). Even if global mean temperature rise is limited to between 1.5 and 2°C, the multilaterally-established warming limit defined in the Paris Agreement, some areas, such as deltaic regions or low-lying islands may be subjected to severe climate change risks (IPCC 2021). Managing such a scenario proactively, we argue, is more desirable than putting lives at risk in regions highly exposed to climate hazards.

The Protection Gap for Climate Displaced Persons

There are persistent legal and protection gaps for different categories of migrants who are, or who will be, moving for reasons connected of climate change. These gaps apply to internal and cross-border migration, long- or short-term migration, and at all levels of jurisdiction –domestic, regional, global, etc. Efforts to address them have been partial and limited in scope. More than two decades after the launch of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, there is still a protection gap for (climate-) displaced persons, as in many regions where internal displacement is a pressing challenge, such as in the Middle East, Oceania and Asia, national implementing legislation and applicable policies are lacking (Nicolau and Pagot 2018). Even where legislation exists, enforcement is often weak (McAdam 2018). An effort to revitalize the internal migration system globally is underway with the UN-Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, which has produced a draft agenda, in which climate change is prominent. In the meantime, the mismanagement of internal migration can prompt displaced persons to migrate internationally or have cascading effects by triggering movements of other population groups. However, people moving across borders because of climate change are under an even lower level of protection. Some may move as labourers, where this option is available. But the international asylum regime defines refugees through the element of persecution on only five grounds, which arguably do not apply to climate-displaced persons (UNHCR 2010; McAdam 2011b). By now, there have been several attempts to succeed in a refugee-type claim on the grounds of climate change effects, in particular in the Australian and New Zealand protection systems. Although some claimants have been permitted to stay in the relevant host nation, this has been on grounds unrelated to climate change (e.g., family ties) (AD (Tuvalu), 2014). Some regional asylum regimes hold some promise in the climate change displacement context (e.g., Kampala Convention), and there are also already many states which individually do not return migrants on their territory to places where enjoyment of fundamental human rights cannot be guaranteed, including as a result of the effects of natural disasters. However, a binding, comprehensive regime for the protection of those affected by the impacts of climate change remains sorely lacking (Thornton 2018).

Top-Down or Bottom-Up? Planned Relocation vs. the Freedom of Movement

It is imperative to close the existing protection gap amongst growing concerns related to climate change. Several organizations have begun to raise awareness, as well as document and provide advice on climate migration. The Nansen Initiative (more recently continuing as the Platform on Disaster Displacement) identified “enhancing the use of humanitarian protection measures for cross-border disaster-displaced persons, including mechanisms for lasting solutions” as a priority area for future activities (The Nansen Initiative 2015). The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, highlighted the importance of developing mechanisms that would address climate migration (International Organization for Migration 2018). Leaning on recommendations outlined in the Compact and by the Nansen Initiative, respectively its successor organization the Platform on Disaster Displacement, we explore what concepts could guide migratory movements out of exposed areas.

A Climate Change-Linked Passport

The idea of providing Nansen-type passports to nationals of small island states that could lose their territory has already been introduced by Heyward and Ödalen (2013) and WBGU (2018) (Heyward and Ödalen 2013; WBGU 2018). We suggest that any changes in the migration regime should be robust and linked to temperature changes beyond 1.5 to 2°C. The climate change impacts that stem from this may be life-threatening beyond small island states, which the WBGU proposal[1] already noted focuses on, and hence affect regions across the world. We therefore suggest the development of indicators for uninhabitability in general, not only for small island states. Heyward and Ödalen find that individuals should be able to determine where they could live, rather than depend on immigration quotas of specific states. In contrast to their demand for all countries to accept the Nansen Passport, we urge a particular group of states to recognize it: those that have a moral debt to a country in which a territory may become uninhabitable. These can be countries that have substantially contributed to global greenhouse gas emissions (WBGU 2018) or countries which have other ethical obligations to assist, for example historical debts due to colonization.

Since adoption of the Paris agreement, global emissions have not started to decrease and thereby threaten the internationally agreed Paris guardrail of 1.5-2°C. In Article 7.1. of the Paris Agreement parties agree to ensure “an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2”. Given this, we argue to prepare an assessment for the immediate issuance of Nansen Passport-type documents for the benefit of citizens of all particularly exposed places once the 1.5°C threshold has passed and where uninhabitability thresholds as outlined above are passed. The 1,5°C warming level is approaching fast. Xu et al. (2018) analyze that there is a fifty-fifty chance that the limit could be crossed by 2030.[2] This analysis has been further supported by work of the World Meteorological Organization which projects that 1,5°C warming could be reached within the next 5 years, also with a 50% probability.[3]

The Right to Stay and the Freedom to Go

Individuals and communities often prefer to stay and pursue in-situ adaptation strategies, even if this means continued exposure to risk (Laurice Jamero et al. 2017; Patel 2006). Confronted with a multiplicity of climate impacts across regions, a variety of measures will have to be taken to ensure effective adaptation in very different local contexts. A Nansen Passport-type document is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to manage the negative impacts of climate change and would not be a replacement for expenditure on in-situ adaptation. It should be designed to complement such measures where and when they reach a limit. Ideally, migration with a ‘Nansen Climate Passport’ would be assisted by pre-departure trainings for labor market integration, language skills and financial assistance. Climate impacts on land and livelihoods can undermine social or cultural rights (UN General Assembly 1966), as the traditional way of living may in some regions no longer be possible because of land degradation or disappearance. Having to migrate can in itself mean significant challenges of transition and non-economic losses. The Nansen Climate Passport would hence give people a degree of agency to determine their future despite the fact that they had to experience extensive damage or harm.

Evidently, the current tendencies of criminalizing immigration (Garcı́a Hernández 2017) and forceful migration deterrence policies (McLeman 2019) stand in contrast to the approach of the Nansen Climate Passport. The rejection of the Global Compact for Migration by five countries, including the US, signifies the rejection of international human rights norms on which the compact is based. Likewise, the criminalization of migrants and refugees in public discourses provides for this deterioration of international norms. But ultimately, the exclusionary policies towards those who, for various reasons, can no longer find refuge in their home country, will undermine the objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals to which the international community has committed itself. Markedly, climate change is affecting vulnerable countries the most and will widen existing inequalities in the future. In the face of this grave global injustice, enabling transboundary migration is one of the few feasible adaptation strategies. Our paper has outlined a concrete pathway by which this could be achieved, one with roots in historical instances of mass displacement to which states responded practically but compassionately. The freedom of movement of many a species in case of environmental change is a necessity that few people would deny. This inevitably raises the question, why we have not yet adopted a legal framework that would give this freedom to our own kind, too.


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[1] Several authors are also authors of the present paper.