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Passport Power, Climate Vulnerability, and Adaptation Readiness

Charles Phillips

Charles Phillips

Charles Phillips is an independent researcher and consultant for Oxford Business Group whose field of expertise is energy and climate change policy in the Middle East.

By comparing the latest results of the Henley Passport Index, which ranks all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa, with the University of Notre Dame’s ND-GAIN Country Index, which summarizes a country's vulnerability to climate change and its readiness to adapt, we can see close correlations between climate adaptation performance and travel freedom.

Climate change must be factored into future planning

Climate change is rising sharply on the agendas of almost every economic sector and is becoming a more significant driver in decision making and in planning for the future. It is already impacting, and will certainly do so increasingly in the future, on virtually all businesses and on all aspects of our lives. No one should be planning for the long term without considering the climate change factor. Paying attention to the impact of climate change on future migration trends and global mobility is going to become ever more important.

The latest Henley Passport Index results for Q2 2022 again illustrate the growing divide between wealthier countries and developing countries in terms of visa-free travel. Citizens of the world’s wealthiest nations are able to visit the vast majority of the countries of the world without a visa whereas citizens of some of the poorest countries can visit only a fraction of these.

GMR - Phillips

The Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN) is a program led by the University of Notre Dame, which produces an annual country index summarizing countries’ climate adaptation performance – the ND-GAIN Country Index. Climate adaptation can be defined as adjusting to the changing climate to minimize its negative impacts on humans, the built environment, and natural systems. The Index aims to help decision makers identify and prioritize adaptation measures and allocate climate adaptation investment most effectively.

The ND-GAIN Country Index is composed of two key dimensions of climate adaptation: vulnerability and readiness. Climate vulnerability measures a country's exposure, sensitivity, and capacity to adapt to the negative effects of climate change. Adaptation readiness measures a country’s readiness to improve climate resilience by looking at its ability to leverage investments and convert them to climate adaptation actions.

Climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity correlate to travel freedom

Figure 1. Visa-free score and climate vulnerability

Figure 1 shows that countries with a high vulnerability to climate change enjoy the least travel freedom and that countries which are less vulnerable to the impacts of climate change have a strong tendency to have high visa-free scores. High income countries are concentrated on the upper left of the graph, indicating their lower vulnerability to climate change and significantly higher visa-free scores. Many European countries, such as Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, are concentrated here. Low income countries on the other hand are predominantly on the lower right-hand side of the graph, indicating their comparatively higher vulnerability to climate change and significantly lower visa-free scores. Many sub-Saharan African countries, such as Chad, Somalia, and Sudan are concentrated here, along with low income countries in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan and Yemen.

Figure 2. Visa-free score and adaptive capacity

Figure 2 shows that adaptive capacity strongly correlates to travel freedom, with even more dramatic differences between high income and low income countries than for climate vulnerability. It shows that countries with a low capacity to adapt to climate change enjoy the least travel freedom. The adaptive capacity refers to the availability of resources for adaptation and the ability of a system to adjust to climate change.

Economic development helps explain climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity

Many of the patterns that exist between wealth and travel freedom are echoed in the relationship between climate vulnerability and travel freedom. The same is true for adaptive capacity and travel freedom. This is because climate vulnerability and adaptive capacity commonly go hand in hand with a country’s level of wealth.

We know that countries with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita enjoy greater visa-free travel. Countries are keen to open their borders to citizens from wealthier countries so they can benefit from the trade, tourism, and investment gains this will bring. The same freedoms, however, are not afforded to citizens from countries with high levels of poverty and economic instability due in part to fears from host countries that these citizens will overstay their visas and place a burden on their social and economic systems.

High levels of poverty and economic instability often correlate to the high climate vulnerability and low adaptive capacity of a country. Poorer countries have fewer resources and weaker infrastructure, which makes them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Richer countries have the resources to adapt to a changing climate and have more resilient infrastructure that can withstand these changes. For example, researchers at the University of Notre Dame have calculated that people living in the least developed countries have 10 times more chance of being affected by a climate disaster than those in wealthy countries each year.

Poorer countries rely more heavily on agriculture for income and food, and this is a sector that is especially vulnerable to changes in climate. According to the UN’s 2017 Global Land Outlook report, around 1.3 billion people, mostly in developing countries, are trapped on degrading agricultural land. This increases their vulnerability to the impacts of climate changes such as higher temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, desertification, increased drought, and increased water scarcity. In turn, climate change can also contribute to economic instability, becoming one of the causal factors for poverty. Greater frequency of droughts, for example, would severely disrupt agricultural production, impacting on a country’s food supply and export earnings.

No strong correlation between travel freedom and climate exposure

Figure 3. Visa-free score and climate exposure

Figure 3 shows the relationship between climate exposure and travel freedom. Exposure indicates the degree to which a country is projected to be physically exposed to significant climate change in the coming decades. The graph shows that exposure is more evenly distributed among wealthy and poorer countries and does not significantly correlate to travel freedom. Singapore, for example, has the same exposure as Sudan to changing climatic conditions. Importantly, however, Singapore has the wealth to adapt to these changing conditions more effectively, whereas Sudan does not. One pattern to note is that European countries are more concentrated to the upper left of the graph, indicating lower climate exposure, whereas high income East Asian countries including Singapore, Japan, and South Korea are located on the upper right-hand side of the graph, indicating higher climate exposure. The difference in exposure here can be attributed to the different physical geographic conditions these countries find themselves in.

Adaptation readiness strongly correlates to travel freedom

Figure 4. Visa-free score and adaptation readiness

Figure 4 shows a strong correlation between adaptation readiness and travel freedom. It shows that countries with a higher readiness to adapt have higher visa-free scores. Readiness includes economic, governance, and social factors. This includes the ability of a country's business environment to accept investment that could be applied to climate adaptation, the institutional factors that enhance the application of such investments, and factors such as social inequality, information and communications technology infrastructure and systems, education, and innovations that will enhance the mobility of climate adaptation investment and promote climate adaptation actions.

This correlation can be explained by the fact that countries with better business environments, stronger and more stable institutions, and societies that assist in the realization of climate change investments are likely to be more economically prosperous and wealthy and therefore score more highly when it comes to travel freedom.

Low vulnerability–high readiness countries enjoy the most travel freedom 

Figure 5. Adaptation readiness and climate vulnerability

In combining the data for readiness and vulnerability, Figure 5 shows that countries with lower vulnerability to climate change and higher readiness to adapt have higher visa-free scores. Overall, citizens from countries with a low capacity to adapt to climate change enjoy far less travel freedom. This is largely since countries facing higher vulnerability to climate change and with a lower readiness to adapt tend to be low income and lower middle income countries, and we already know that there is a well-established correlation between the wealth of a country and the international travel freedoms afforded to its citizens.

Mitigating climate migration

So, what does this mean for the future of migration? From a global policy perspective, the priority must be aggressive and determined efforts to mitigate climate change and halt the deepening pressures being faced by climate vulnerable populations. In addition, adaptation to the unavoidable and impending changes in climate will be essential, particularly for vulnerable populations. A higher capacity to adapt will lower the number of people forced to move. Adaptation includes measures such as land management, lessening the vulnerability of buildings and homes, and reducing peoples’ exposure to environmental hazards brought about by extreme weather events. Given the cost of adaptation, the limited resources of developing countries, and the historical responsibility of wealthy industrialized countries for current concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, the Paris Agreement calls for rich countries to finance adaptation for developing countries.

Migration and global mobility in an era of climate change

Where localized adaptation is not possible, internal relocation within countries will be necessary. International resettlement will also likely be particularly important for populations facing exceptional circumstances such as large-scale environmental destruction or dramatic sea level rise or where internal relocation is not possible. A major trend of the latter is likely to be significantly greater flows of attempted movement from the Global South to the Global North. If this occurs, the flow of refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East towards Europe over recent years would represent just the tip of the iceberg of future migration.

These trends bring into stark reality the fact that your wealth, citizenship, and passport really matter when it comes to climate risk. Most people attempting to move across borders due to climate-induced pressures will likely face significant difficulty. However, the wealthiest citizens in countries facing high climate risk are likely to consider investment migration as an option to reduce the climate-related risks that they and their families are likely to face. They will look to invest in countries less at risk and that have a greater capacity to adapt to changes in climate.

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