Climate change is a complex problem that is likely to pose significant challenges to human populations in the next decades. With rising seas anticipated in the near future, people will be forcibly displaced, posing existential challenges to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Though the international community has thus far found it difficult to find meaningful solutions to this issue, a pathway to protected status for environmental migrants and refugees may become necessary to protect those who are most vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters such as floods, droughts, and hurricanes.
From an underwater cabinet meeting to impassioned speeches to the United Nations, leaders of vulnerable low-lying island states have called for a global system of reparations that takes into account the loss and damage inflicted by climate change. In 2014, Kiribati and Fiji, two small island developing states in the Pacific, affirmed an agreement allowing Kiribati citizens—some 102,000 people—to attain residency in Fiji in the event rising sea levels make their homes uninhabitable. A nation comprised of atolls and reef islands, Kiribati could disappear within the next 30 to 60 years.
This agreement was sought despite the Kiribati government’s long efforts to build coastal walls and floating islands: “People are getting quite scared now and we need immediate solutions. This is why I want to rush the solutions so there will be a sense of comfort for our people,” stated Kiribati President Anote Tong. In Bangladesh, climate change-induced erosion leaves up to 200,000 people homeless each year. To help relocate people who have lost their homes to erosion, sea level rise, and extreme weather events like cyclones and storm surges, the Bangladeshi government is planning, with the help of the Netherlands, to use silt sediments carried by the country’s three major rivers to build new land to house displaced communities.
However, as noted by Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School, a place becomes “uninhabitable well before it’s submerged.” For the residents of the Marshall Islands, which are 1,000-some islands spread out over 29 narrow coral atolls in the South Pacific, the rising seas are already having a destructive impact on daily life. Less than two meters above sea level, the Marshall Islands have witnessed a rise in sea levels of about a foot, or about 0.3 meters, over the past three decades. The New York Times reports that islanders already experience flooding tides once every month or two and some neighborhoods suffer from an influx of sewage-filled water that washes into homes, leading to fevers, dysentery, and other public health concerns. Moreover, seawater has infiltrated underground freshwater tables on some islands. Tidal flooding has even caused public facilities such as schools and airports to close for weeks.
In the United States, in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, more than 90 percent of the island’s original land mass has washed away due to a combination of channels cut by loggers and oil companies and decades of flood control efforts that have kept rivers from replenishing wetland sediments. Residents on the island, many of whom are of Native American descent, have depended on the land for over a century. Now, worn away by increasing floods, once lush fruit trees have mostly disappeared or died from the saltwater in the soil, and few animals are left to hunt or catch. A $48 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is set to help move the population to drier land by 2022. However, whereas some residents are desperate to leave, not all want to move. Families have lived on the island for generations, and their sense of home, family, and community—of culture and heritage—are deeply rooted in the land. “We’ve been on the island for a long, long, long time…I’m going to stay here. Born and raised here, and I’m going to stay here. That’s my town,” says Edison Dardar, a long-time resident of Isle de Jean Charles.
A 2009 report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) on the relationship between climate change and human rights states that up to 250 million people may be displaced by climate change by 2050. UNHCR estimates that by the end of 2013, 51.2 million people worldwide were “forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations,” with the majority of displaced peoples “concentrated in climate change hotspots around the world.” Indeed, the current, unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe has been driven in part by conflict linked to a record-breaking multi-year drought in Syria. Climate change most likely will induce human rights emergencies.
Francois Crepeau, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants at UNHCR, argues that unfortunately “[Climate-induced refugees] do not find any solutions in international law as it presently stands.” Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national and the world’s first climate change refugee, lost his asylum appeal in New Zealand in May 2014 because climate change and its effect on countries are not appropriately addressed under the United Nations Refugee Convention, a 1951 treaty that defines a refugee as a person who “has a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” This definition fails to provide a framework for slow-onset environmental issues, such as sinking islands or low-lying coastal lands slowly eroded due to climate change-induced factors.
The current international system is inadequate to secure the protection of people forced to flee due to environmental disasters including those induced by climate change. Countries, especially developed countries, must come to an agreement that climate change-related displacement is an urgent phenomenon distinct from other forms of migration and offer substantial commitments leading to the formation of a clear international legal framework that addresses the movement of climate refugees.
Peter C.Y. Kim is a recent Master of Arts graduate in International Relations and International Economics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he concentrated on international political economy and energy and environmental policy. He is a former research assistant at the FPI.