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Warming Up to Immigrants: An Option for the US in Climate Policy

Climate migrants and exiles pose a unique challenge that requires a special international strategy, which only the United States, with its well-established and transparent regimes for legal immigration, has the experience and capacity to develop. To begin with, the US could take the initiative in formulating domestic policy to start absorbing a significant proportion of the most vulnerable climate exiles from small island states. It could raise and attend to an urgent issue on the impacts of warming and at the same time claim a leadership position in global climate negotiations by tacitly accepting its historic responsibility for climate change.


Warming Up to Immigrants: An Option for the US in Climate Policy

Sujatha Byravan, Sudhir Chella Rajan

While climate change mitigation, the reduction of future emissions of greenhouse gases, is certainly of paramount importance, it is also evident that the world needs to pay urgent attention to adaptation, that is, to ways of coping with the effects of climate change, such as storms, floods, rising seas, drought and loss of agricultural productivity. This is because

Climate migrants and exiles pose a unique challenge that requires a special international strategy, which only the United States, with its well-established and transparent regimes for legal immigration, has the experience and capacity to develop. To begin with, the US could take the initiative in formulating domestic policy to start absorbing a significant proportion of the most vulnerable climate exiles from small island states. It could raise and attend to an urgent issue on the impacts of warming and at the same time claim a leadership position in global climate negotiations by tacitly accepting its historic responsibility for climate change.

Sujatha Byravan ( is with the Centre for Development Finance, IFMR, Chennai and Sudhir Chella Rajan ( is with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras, Chennai.

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009

n the final run-up to Copenhagen, it seems ever more likely that any agreement of the Conference of Parties (COP) will be far less ambitious than what is really needed to stabilise the climate. The United States (US) may fairly be blamed for diluting the agenda with its att empts to dismantle the Kyoto Protocol and replace it with a regime that does not appropriately reflect the spirit of “common but differentiated responsibilities” embodied in the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Rajamani 2009). Moreover, although the Barack Obama administration seemed init ially to signal strong differences with its predecessor by pushing vigorous domestic and diplomatic efforts early on, political considerations and the so-called “economic tsunami” seem to have stolen its ability to demonstrate real leadership on climate change.

Domestically, both the Waxman-Markey bill and its Senate version propose weak caps on emissions (17% below 2005 levels by 2020), denying the possibility that the US can indicate, at least during the near term, robust commitment on mitigation to the rest of the world. Its efforts seem tame even against policies already in effect in Europe, and meagre in light of its contribution to the problem, which c urrently stands at about 30% of the a tmospheric global warming burden. There is indeed a deep sense of distrust among the cops: emerging economies are suspicious about the intentions of Europe and the US while the latter seem intent on twisting their arms to take on binding commitments; meanwhile, the least developing countries, who have the most to lose from climate impacts, are acutely concerned that the 20 odd countries responsible for the bulk of the emissions will break their pledge to avert catastrophic climate change.

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the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and oceans over the past 200 years is only now slowly warming the planet and many of these impacts will be felt over the course of this century and beyond even if the world were to stop burning any more fossil fuels or limit landclearing activities. It is critical that attention be paid to changes in natural and s ocial systems regardless of how substantially emissions are reduced over c oming decades.

Adaptation currently has a small seat at the negotiating table, and even there the main questions are on how to provide funding and technology transfer to the most vulnerable countries for domestic coping strategies relating to water availability, disease and agricultural challenges associated with climate change. There is as yet virtually no discussion on impending problems of forced human displacement and the disappearance of territorial states, particularly as a result of sealevel rise, or on the options needed to resolve them. Yet, some of the worst impacts, especially those associated with crossborder migration as well as internal human displacement caused by climate change, can in fact be managed with some skilful advanced planning. The US, it turns out, is uniquely well-positioned with regard to its institutions, policies and politics to play a leadership role to address the impending humanitarian crisis, and can do so while actually making gains for itself in both diplomatic and economic terms.

Climate Migrants and Exiles

Scientists expect an average sea level rise to the extent of about half a metre to a few metres by the end of this century, resulting in an increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones and hurricanes, storm surges, coastal inundation, salt water intrusion, and damage to coastal ecosystems, all of which will make life along


low-lying coasts and small islands difficult who will have no place to go because their or impossible. Even a sea level rise of 30 habitats, means of livelihood and perhaps


cm will make large low-lying areas uninhabitable and result in forced migration. In Bangladesh alone, where about a third of the population lives in the coastal region which is within about 10 metres above sea level, up to 80 million people are likely to be forced to migrate inland or to other countries, based on the extent of damage caused. Similar effects will be seen in the form of substantial internal displacement in China and India and in a significant number of stateless people from the smaller low-lying countries such as Guyana and Vietnam and several atoll nations including the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands. The displacement is not expected to happen all at once, but will probably extend over time as various areas become uninhabitable; at any rate, no other form of environmentally induced human migration is likely to be as permanent as that caused by sea level rise.

As an already low-lying area, the Netherlands has successfully protected itself thus far through dykes, dams and other barriers, but according to a recent report by the Dutch Delta Committee, this is expected to require annual investments of about €1.5 billion for the rest of the century just to protect its 350 km coastline. A nother study by Richard Tol (2002) estimates that the minimum cost of protection against one metre of sea level rise will be about $5,00,000 per kilometre of coastline, but even then 20 to 50% of the vulnerable population will not be protected. Moreover, in many delta regions of the world, dykes cannot be used effectively because of silt formation and shifting dunes.

If conservative estimates of sea level rise do turn out to be correct, then, the loss and liability insurance policies taken out by individuals and large corporations and adaptation measures such as improved coastal defences will probably provide adequate security for many, although at great expense, as noted above. Similarly, emerging practices for adaptation can be expected to provide relief and protection for those affected by famines and health problems as a result of warming. But there will very likely remain one class of vulnerable populations for whom such actions cannot possibly suffice – people even entire nations are destroyed through rising seas. As a result, no matter how a ggressive future climate change mitigation strategies may be, in the absence of new policies, we can be sure that by the middle to the end of the century there will be millions of “boat people” looking for safer ground. For example, the islands of Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific, which may be among the first countries to be wiped out by the sea level rise, are already encountering a serious problem dispatching their citizens to neighbouring Australia and New Zealand, which claim to have filled their quotas for traditionally defined refugees.

Under current international law, there is no protection available for those permanently displaced from their homes as a res ult of the sea-level rise. A refugee, a ccording to the International Refugee Convention of 1951, is someone who is “unable [or] unwilling to avail himself of the protection” of his country of nationality and is outside that country “owing to (a) wellgrounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or p olitical opinion”. Legal protection under the Convention is available only to people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war or persecution and have the possibility of return when things get better in the future. We therefore reserve the terms “climate migrants” and “climate exiles” to refer to the victims of sea-level rise attributed to climate change. While the former may include all those who are displaced because of the impacts of climate change, the latter refer to a special category of those displaced because they have lost their ability to remain members of political societies in their own countries, indeed their countries may not even exist as a result of sea level rise. Climate migrants and exiles pose a unique challenge that requires a special international strategy, which only the US, with its wellestablished and transparent regimes for legal immigration, has the experience and capacity to develop.

To begin with, the US may want to take the initiative in formulating domestic p olicy to start absorbing a significant

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pro p ortion of the most vulnerable climate exiles from small island states, enfolding these within existing numbers of legal i mmigrants so there is no net annual increase in immigrants. At the same time it can begin the task of shaping an international agreement to anticipate and a ddress the problems of the many millions of climate exiles and migrants in the f uture. If accompanied by supporting programmes for capacity development, these efforts would continue to provide the US and other host countries a competitive edge by helping to maintain their relatively young and productive labour pool for several decades to come. At little or no cost, the US can raise and attend to an u rgent issue on the impacts of warming and at the same time reclaim its leadership position in global climate negotiations by tacitly accepting its historic r esponsibility for climate change. Presented as an expression of acknowledgement of its stock of cumulative emissions in the atmosphere, such action would in fact turn the tables on Europe as well as other major emitters, persuading them to demonstrate real shifts towards reducing their future flows of greenhouse gas emissions.

Immigration as Climate Policy

Among industrialised countries, the US has one of the most progressive policies on immigration. While illegal immigration is much in the news, legal immigration itself has been especially high in recent years, exceeding previous records set in the early part of the 20th century. Each year since 1990, over a million people were granted permanent residence status and over 5 million and their families were admitted on business and student visas, despite the additional restrictions since September 2001. Indeed, half of the increase in population expected in the US in the next 25 years will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. In comparison, in Europe, only Germany and the United Kingdom have generous immigration policies. Yet, with its low fertility rates, Europe will face an especially serious crisis in the future if its economy begins to lose a young and productive workforce and struggles to support an aging population.

America’s social policy and political culture are supportive to immigrants for a

Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009

variety of reasons. Historically, the fact that the US is a country of immigrants is deeply embedded in the national psyche. Second, immigrants in America are more likely to entertain the idea of a single n ational identity that is less tied to a particular race, ethnicity or religion than in many countries in Europe and Asia. Third, the fact that the US welfare system is generally weak and also hard to access, especially for temporary workers, implies that there is comparatively little political resentment towards legal newcomers. The result is that immigration can be treated as a mainstream issue, open for discussion in the US, whereas in Europe, the topic has increasingly become far more sensitive as a political problem. Given its relative openness towards immigrants, therefore, the US has a unique advantage and can shape a climate policy that takes seriously the needs of climate exiles and challenge other countries to follow its lead.

As a first step, the Obama administration can declare its willingness to provide immigration rights over, say, a five-yearperiod to up to 1,00,000 or so of the most vulnerable climate exiles currently living in low-lying atoll nations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, without increasing its overall intake of legal immigrants. Such action may be supported domestically as an honourable and humanitarian step that “only the US has the moral fibre to undertake”, and viewed internationally as having positive climate policy implications. It would provide the US sufficient leverage to get the international community to formulate a broader treaty that provides immigration rights to climate exiles from vulnerable regions in advance of disastrous impacts. Once the basic principle of providing fair rehabilitation for climate exiles is accepted, there could be several ways to determine who should be considered for immigration rights, which countries should absorb exiles, how the rights could be exercised, how and whether internal displacement needs to be considered as part of the international treaty and what institutional and political mechanisms should be established to reduce the risks of a massive humanitarian crisis as climate impacts become more severe (Byravan and Rajan 2006).

In one possible framework, people living in nation states that will become physically unviable or will face an unendurable burden will be given special rights under a separate “climate exile” status, giving them the right to migrate to a particular or previously agreed upon country. Hosts will, in turn, be determined on the basis of their shares of cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases. In this scenario, the US and the European Union will need to be prepared to provide immigration rights for roughly half the total exiles expected by the middle to end of the century, based on

CENTRE FOR SOCIAL STUDIES, SURAT Visiting Fellowship Programme

The Centre, a multidisciplinary social science research institute, has been taking up research with its main focus on development, displacement, deprivation, marginalization, governance and civil society, public health, environment, etc. CSS focuses largely but not solely on Gujarat. CSS invites applications from scholars under its Visiting Fellowship programme. The programme is designed to facilitate scholars interested in working on any area of social science research leading towards a publishable monograph. A monthly fellowship up to a maximum of Rs.18,000/- would be admissible during the tenure of fellowship spanning not more than 12 months. Other things being equal, preference will be given to women, SC, ST and OBC candidates. Selected Fellows will be provided unfurnished rent-free accommodation on the campus. Those interested should send their C.V. with a detailed research proposal to the Director, Centre for Social Studies, Veer Narmad South Gujarat University, Udhna-Magdalla Road, Surat – 395 007 or to by November 30, 2009.


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their current shares of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. Other countries, including China, Japan, India, and Mexico, whose cumulative shares can be expected to increase over time, will need to set up similar shares for immigrants in proportionate terms. If the rights were distributed in a phased manner, the numbers of annual entrants of climate exiles may be well under the number of legal immigrants currently taken up by many countries. Also,

some countries like China may be both the source of large emissions and have vulnerable populations. In such cases, relocations within countries may be included as part of, or in addition to, shares for displaced climate exiles from elsewhere. Advance planning for an influx of climate exiles can further be perceived by hosts as an opportunity to provide education and training to the regions from where they will eventually take in people, thus ensuring that those who arrive are suitably skilled.

Whether and how people exercise their climate exile rights is a different matter altogether. For instance, they may indeed choose to move into another developing country close to them. In fact, people from Bangladesh might prefer to move to India, rather than far away. India itself is e xpected to experience large-scale internal displacement of people. Whatever forms of actual movement within and across borders may ensue, an international framework and institutions that provide special and enabling rights to climatedisplaced migrants and exiles to lead fulfilling lives will be essential to limit chaos and global insecurity.

A Win-Win Solution

There are several practical reasons to take this approach seriously. First, while relatively little discussion has taken place on compensation mechanisms for developing countries relating to climate change impacts, there is good cause to believe that many pending “climate justice” cases will start to gain salience as and when adverse effects are attributed with greater cause to human-induced climate change. The island of Tuvalu, along with Kiribati and Maldives, recently backed down from filing a suit in the International Court of Justice against the US and Australia for failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Regardless of the outcome of particular cases, it is useful to bear in mind that the model of assigning liability shares has been well e stablished for providing compensation in other areas of environmental litigation. Under this doctrine, it is conceivable that even US courts will be friendly to growing compensation claims from foreign populations vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. While rehabilitation programmes of the sort described here may not necessarily pre-empt such legal action, they could blunt their consequences.

Second, the long-term implications of adopting such a framework will be manifold. The mere acknowledgement of historical contributions in this manner will provide developing countries the confidence that their concerns with legacy or historical emissions are being addressed and also persuade them to participate earnestly in future mitigation efforts according to fair burden-sharing principles. In particular, it will give the US the legiti macy, which it appears to have lost in the previous eight to 10 years, to make the argument that globally shared mitigation efforts are essential to address climate change. It is also consistent with the calls by Bolivia, Venezuela and other d eveloping countries to keep track of the climate debt while taking joint action to reduce emissions.

Third, rather than be unprepared for, or act in hostile ways towards the masses of climate-displaced persons who will inevitably try to find their way to other countries at great hardship and danger to themselves, the hosts will have organised themselves well in advance to manage the influx and even benefit from it, if capacity development and skills training are p rovided early. Indeed, these actions will ensure that climate exiles continue to p rovide a skilled labour force in ageing


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november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45


s ocieties even with no net increase in a nnual immigrants.

The biggest hindrance to discussing such a proposal in the COP is likely to come from within the environmental community itself, which is so focused on getting a “deal” on mitigation commitments in C openhagen that it feels too nervous about broaching any topic that may potentially rock the boat. But this is an inverted set of priorities, and only heightens the


possibility of a weak compromise that presup poses the prevalence of neo-realist intentions among the players. Instead, what is needed is a bold move that shifts the diplomatic paradigm by emphasising the cosmopolitan character of the climate c hallenge, which the Obama administration, with its self-image of transformative cross-cultural leadership, is distinctively positioned to offer. Such leadership is exactly what the international community now needs to address global warming and the climate exile challenge.


Byravan, Sujatha and Sudhir Chella Rajan (2006): “Providing New Homes for Climate Change E xiles”, Climate Policy, 6, pp 247-52.

Rajamani, Lavanya (2009): “The ‘Cloud’ over the C limate Negotiations: From Bangkok to Copenhagen and Beyond”, Economic & Political Weekly, 24 October.

Tol, Richard S J (2002): “Estimates of the Damage Costs of Climate Change. Part 1: Benchmark Estimates”, Environmental and Resource Economics 21(1), pp 47-73.




Economic & Political Weekly

november 7, 2009 vol xliv no 45

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