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October 19, 2010

After the flood

     Leaders of island nations such as the Maldives have pleaded with the world to do something about climate change before they are flooded out of existence. But even if there is global action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some warming-induced sea level rise is inevitable – raising the question of how populations can be evacuated and resettled. A new system would be required, because under current international law, island nation inhabitants would not be considered refugees with a right to a safe haven, said New York University professor Katrina Wymans, who presented at The Evolution of Property Rights Related to Land and Natural Resources last month.
       Beginning around the time the New World was being discovered, thinkers including Grotius, Pufendord and Kant pondered the order of global human settlement. Any right to safe haven in the context of global warming would have to be grounded in the notion of collective ownership of the earth, as cited by Harvard political philosopher Mathias Riise: that people have symmetrical claims to the earth’s resources because everyone needs them and no one created them. Once that principle was established, a formula could be devised assessing availability of land in receiving nations, population density, and wealth measured by GDP. A test run shows that the population of the Maldives would be distributed in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Iceland, China, Russia, and Japan.
       Resettlement quotas could be tradeable, Wymans suggested; if countries didn’t want to admit people, they could pay into a fund to resettle them elsewhere. This would require an international agency to manage. “This is a moral more than a legal argument,” Richard Barnes from the University of Bristol said in response, noting that coastal cities and not just island nations will likely have to be resettled. William Fischel, the economist from Dartmouth College, suggested that the inhabitants of the Maldives and similar areas could undergo special training and education programs to make them more attractive emigrants.
       The discussion, designed to be thought-provoking, came at the end of the three-day conference, choreographed in part by Daniel H. Cole and Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, assessing systems of organizing property rights and managing natural resources, many of which can be seen as self-governing alternatives to the “tragedy of the commons” – the notion that individual self-interest trumps working together to ensure that resources are sustained.
      At the gathering, prominent scholars in economics, political science, history, and law examined property systems and resource management models ranging from the 19th century California Gold Rush to the Clean Air Act, endangered species, and water resources management. Among the many highlights: Thrainn Eggertsson from the University of Iceland and NYU, with an update on the system of individual transferable quotas for various species of fish in waters off Iceland, and Ostrom on successful farmer-managed irrigation systems in Nepal and the importance of community engagement in protecting forestries in 12 countries around the world.


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