In 1988, two United Nations organizations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scientific intergovernmental organization was later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The role of the IPCC is to “assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”
Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in recent years demonstrate a near consensus on climate change and the role that human activity plays in its development. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time, given its worldwide scope and capacity to change the face of the planet forever. From Hurricane Katrina, dubbed the most destructive hurricane to strike the US, to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami that resulted in more than 18,000 deaths, it is clear that erratic weather patterns and major shifts in our climate can have immense effects on our everyday lives.
Last week, a New Zealand court heard the appeal of a very novel type of asylum seeker: a climate change refugee. The individual, who cannot be named due to New Zealand immigration law, is seeking refuge in the country for himself and his family, due to rising sea levels in his home country of Kiribati. “Kiribati, an impoverished string of 33 coral atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has about 103,000 people and has been identified by scientists as one of the nations that is most vulnerable to climate change. The country’s atolls have an average height above sea level of just 6.5 feet.” According to this individual, his family had to seek higher ground as so-called king tides have become a norm in Kiribati, killing crops, flooding homes and sickening people.
The world’s oceans have been rising at an annual rate of 0.1 inches since 1970, and this poses a great risk for low-lying island countries, such as those in the South Pacific. Countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are at great risk due to rising ocean levels. Earlier this month, an international panel of climate scientists issued a report saying that it was “extremely likely” that human activity was causing global warming, and predicted that oceans could rise by as much as 3.3 feet by the end of the century. If that were to happen, much of Kiribati would simply disappear.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” While this definition is very thorough and constructive – given the causes of migration in the past – it does not fully encompass all acceptable causes of migration. In today’s world, people are not only harmed and persecuted by war or violence, but also suffer greatly due to drastic weather patterns in places they call home. While estimates vary on the rate and speed at which our oceans are rising and our climate is changing, there is much concern about vulnerable populations in certain countries. If climate change does continue its course with no fundamental obstacles placed in its place, entire populations of South Pacific island countries should be considered possible future climate change refugees. And this is not taking into consideration other consequences of climate change that include droughts, deforestation and flooding.
According to Renaud et al, there are three types of environmentally driven refugees or migrants. Environmental emergency migrants are people that are displaced due to sudden events, especially disasters. These migrants flee to save their lives due to events such as floods, hurricanes, tsunami waves, and volcanic eruptions. There is also a high chance that these migrants will eventually return to their homes once they no longer in immediate danger. Environmentally forced migrants are people who have to abandon their homes in connection with worsening environmental condition. These migrants are forced to leave because of gradual and often irreversible degradation of the environment, with limited opportunity to return to their homes. The causes of such displacements include: droughts, coastal deterioration, and deforestation. Finally, there are environmentally motivated migrants, who decide to migrate from a deteriorating area anticipating negative environmental changes in the future. This migration is a response to environmental degradation, but it is not an emergency action. Environmental emergency migrants are quite common, given the frequency with which certain countries are hit with earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. The theory for the future, however, is that we will be seeing a higher number of environmentally forced migrants, as certain regions will become entirely uninhabitable.
Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, has written extensively on the subject of environmental migrants. In his paper, Environmental Exodus, Myers put the number of climate change refugees at 200 million by 2050. Various NGOs and both the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the president of the UN General Assembly in 2008 have mentioned this number. While Myers does point out that this number is in the upper limit, many have questioned the methodology and accuracy of his estimate. Irrespective of whether this estimate is entirely accurate, it is a fact that ocean levels are rising, and many low-lying countries are at risk. It is a fact that droughts, deforestation, tsunamis and massive earthquakes are making certain areas of the world highly volatile places to live. And it is a fact that we need to start paying attention to the consequences of climate change, one being mass migrations around the globe.
Legal experts believe that the appeal of the individual from Kiribati seeking asylum in New Zealand will be denied, given an earlier tribunal decision, which rejected his claim on the grounds that his life wasn’t in jeopardy and many others on Kiribati faced similar problems. The legal principle at the moment, according to Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert at the University of Auckland, only recognizes the individual risk and not the collective risk. If the man’s appeal is rejected, he will be deported with his wife and three New Zealand-born children, the youngest less than a year old. While this individual is likely to be deported along with his family, he has raised a very important issue which governments must sooner than later make a priority. Climate change is a social problem, and its consequences can be dire for millions in vulnerable locations.