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Climate Change Displacement: An Issue Now, Or In The Future?

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data suggest that if the world does not slow its carbon emission, there is a 95% chance of the sea level rising. If the world cannot keep the global temperature within 1.5 degrees Celsius of the preindustrial global temperature, the sea level is expected to rise between 26-82cm by the year 2100. What do these numbers mean for the global flows of people?

The Maldives is so low lying that about 80% of its islands sit at below one metre above sea level. Similarly, Indonesia is set to lose 1,500 islands, and Jakarta’s major airport by 2050 if sea levels continue to rise in accordance with the data. The Asian Bank of Development suggests that in Indonesia alone, 42 million people are at risk of being displaced. Additionally, 80% of the Marshall Islands territory would be lost on these projections also. Thus most states that include coastal areas will be affected in a way which will lead to people in transit.

Climate change can also force people out of their homes in ways other than through direct inundation. Rising sea temperatures in the South Pacific are impacting on fisheries, which will affect subsistence farmers who rely upon these fisheries to sustain their families. There will also be flow on effects regarding the workability of land and access to fresh water and ecosystems. Coupled with a higher frequency and intensity of natural disasters, climate change causes a range of issues which disrupt daily life to such an extent that people are forced to move. For families with low disposable incomes the added pressures of a changing climate may force people to relocate indefinitely.

All of these statistics make climate displacement seem like a future issue. But it is actually beginning now. In 2009, people began to relocate from the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, to the main island of Bougainville, because of increasingly frequent storm surges and their fast approaching need to relocate due to rising sea levels. New Zealand has already been dealing with legal challenges from “climate refugees”. In 2013, a Kiribati citizen had his appeal to stay in New Zealand as a refugee dismissed. His argument was that he faced “passive persecution” insofar as his state was unable to protect him from the gradual advances of climate change. The High Court of New Zealand noted the difficulty of the situation and stated that it was not the role of a domestic Court to expand the definition of a refugee under the Refugee Convention. This was a matter for diplomacy and sovereign states. Thus no protection was afforded to this man. However in August 2014, an immigration tribunal also in New Zealand granted asylum to a family from Tuvalu, on the grounds that climate change and overpopulation rendered their lives in Tuvalu unduly difficult. However this case was primarily won and argued on the grounds that the family had multiple generations living within New Zealand and had created a livelihood for themselves in New Zealand. Thus states around the world are already dealing with the effects of people displaced by climate change.

A larger issue currently at hand is that the UNHCR expressly rejects use of the term ‘climate refugee’ and currently has no adequate legal term of reference for persons facing displacement based on climate change. Climate displacement should be an issue front and centre of international legal minds, to prevent a future crisis of people in transit.

By Josh Pallas, Research Assistant at the University of Wollongong, you can contact him on twitter: @joshpallas.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Nick Hobgood (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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