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Europe has a responsibility to help island nations hit hardest by climate change

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The European Union should take the lead in offering not just visas but citizenship to residents of island nations that will soon be inundated.

Mark Alfano argues that residents of low-lying island nations face the inevitable prospect of rising seas caused by the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers. Unlike residents of coastal regions, such as southern Florida, these islanders will soon have nowhere to retreat as the waters rise. Clearly, these people need options for relocation. Current immigration and refugee laws, however, do not recognise climate change as a distinctive reason to emigrate. For these reasons, other nations with the capacity to welcome new residents — especially those with a legacy of high emissions — bear a special responsibility to assist with “dignified” migration. Europe has both the capacity to do so and the legacy of high emissions.

Most of the policy proposals in this volume address problems encountered by European citizens. European policy, though, also has a responsibility to the most vulnerable people and nations in the Global South – and all the more so when their predicament is a result of Europe’s actions in the past. One of the most pressing moral obligations of this sort is towards the residents of some small, low-lying island nations who face the inevitable prospect of rising seas caused by the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers due to global warming.

Unlike residents of low-lying coastal regions, such as southern Florida, these islanders will soon have nowhere safe, secure, and arable to retreat as the waters rise. Their ancestral homelands will literally sink into the ocean. Clearly, these people need options for relocation. Current immigration and refugee laws, however, do not recognise climate change as a distinctive reason to emigrate. Politicians from the affected islands understandably prefer “migrating with dignity”, in the words of former Kiribati President Anote Tong, to forced relocation in the face of emergencies and disasters.

Any other nation with the capacity to welcome new residents bears a responsibility to assist with this dignified migration of the primary victims of global warming. This responsibility, however, falls primarily on those nations with a legacy of climate-change-inducing high emissions. New Zealand has so far led the way with a new visa program for residents of Pacific island nations. But New Zealand is a small nation itself, has contributed far less to legacy emissions than other nations, and its visas do not provide permanent residency and rights. Europe has both far more capacity and more legacy emissions than New Zealand, so the European Union should take the lead in offering not just visas but citizenship to residents of island nations that will soon be inundated. Doing so will place Europe at the forefront of tackling emergent global problems that may inspire others with a legacy of emissions – such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Russia, China, and elsewhere. The world desperately needs serious, sober, and compassionate leadership at this time, and Europe is well positioned to accept this mantle.

This proposal may generate concerns and objections. In the following, I consider and respond to the most serious ones raised during the Twelve Stars online debate.

Cost: Can we afford such a generous invitation? The envisioned program would cover the following island nations: Kiribati (110,000 residents), Nauru (10,000 residents), the Maldives (427,000 residents), Palau (21,000 residents), Micronesia (104,000 residents), Cape Verde (540,000 residents), the Solomon Islands (600,000 residents), the Seychelles (94,000 residents), Tuvalu (11,000 residents), and the Marshall Islands (53,000 residents). Altogether, this sums up to less than 2 million people. For context, in 2015 alone, approximately 1 million migrants arrived in Europe. Under an orderly scheme of dignified immigration, these islanders would not all arrive at once, but over a decade or more. The rise of sea levels, after all, does not occur over night. Some may choose not to come to Europe at all, but may end up in Australia, the US or elsewhere. From a logistical point of view, the proposed relocation and integration would be relatively easy to manage. In the medium and long term, the initiative is likely to produce a net economic benefit. Research shows that immigrants are more likely than natural-born citizens to start new businesses, and more willing to work in difficult-to-staff regions and sectors. Given Europe’s unsustainably low birthrates and consequently rapidly aging population, an influx of immigrants is economically desirable.

Cultural integration: Will immigrants fit into their new communities? Speaking as an immigrant myself, I can confirm that moving to a new country is challenging. Sometimes it’s hard to understand or even notice local norms and expectations until one violates them. However, immigrants tend to bring with them a wealth of traditions, cuisines, and other cultural practices that enrich their new homes. In addition, while there is an ugly stereotype of immigrants as crime-prone, research shows that they are actually less likely to commit crimes than natural-born citizens. In addition, the hardest cases of integration occur when large populations move suddenly, without legal protection, because of an emergency. The proposed initiative seeks to avoid these pitfalls that would occur anyway without it. As signatories of the UN Charter, European nations would neither legally nor politically be in a position to simply slam their doors shut to people rescued from inundated islands in a last-minute emergency effort. The proposed scheme would merely help to prepare and manage the inevitable in an orderly fashion. Granting citizenship now does not mean that people will move immediately, or even at all. It would afford a guarantee, however, that citizens are entitled to entry and legal protection. It would give the affected people the chance to plan their moves instead of fleeing from disaster.

National identity: What country would these migrants be citizens of? At the moment, there is no such thing as European citizenship; the EU does not issue passports. This prompts the question: Which country or countries would the islanders become citizens of? There are two options to answer this question. First, passports of host EU nations could be allocated proportionally with host-nation population. For example, Germany currently accounts for approximately 16.3 percent of the population of the EU. This would translate to offers of citizenship to 326,000 of the 2 million residents of the affected island nations. By contrast, Lithuania accounts for only .05 percent of the population of the EU, which translates to 11,023 offers of citizenship. A more daring alternative would be to establish EU citizenship as a new legal status that would not be tied to any particular country. This new legal status would be in keeping with the proclaimed goal of the EU to achieve “ever deeper union”. The new legal status could potentially become a standard way for people to move to the EU. It could also help to address the wish to continue to live as Europeans by many Britons likely to resettle on the Continent in the wake of the disastrous developments surrounding Brexit.

Fairness: What about other countries with high legacy emissions? It might seem that my proposal is unfair. After all, other countries – such as the United States, Canada, China, and Russia – also have high legacy emissions. And other countries – such as Australia, India, and Indonesia – are geographically closer to the affected South Sea regions. Should all those nations not step up and help, too? In principle, I think that they should, and I would be happy to see my proposal expanded into a global United Nations program. However, in the meantime, the world leader on this problem is New Zealand, which has relatively low legacy emissions and a much smaller population than the European Union.

I think the EU should claim a leadership role for moral reasons, but also to demonstrate its independence and sense of purpose in a world that can no longer rely on the United States to act with even a modicum of moral integrity. In addition, as mentioned above, the proposed programme can be expected to produce net cultural and economic benefits in the medium and long term. The question of fairness presupposes that accepting these immigrants is costly overall. But if it is not, there is no reason to object.

Sea-level uncertainty: Will ocean levels really rise enough to inundate these islands? In a system as complex as the global climate, there is of course much uncertainty. We do not know exactly how much or how quickly the sea level can be expected to rise. What we do know, however, is what we can already measure today. Ice caps and glaciers are actually melting faster than predicted even under pessimistic scenarios from a decade ago. Sea levels are rising accordingly. In several of the island nations under discussion, inundation and salination are already serious, actual problems. The question is not whether these islands will literally disappear off the map – though some of them probably will. The question is whether they will be livable. That means, among other things, that they need safe and secure resources, most notably potable water and arable land. Current estimates indicate that these will become scarce or non-existent in the mentioned island-states within a few decades. The situation may not seem urgent to us in Europe, but it certainly is for islanders in the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Online Debate

On 9 June 2018, Mark Alfano defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.

Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.


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