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What Will Happen to the Millions Displaced by Climate Change?

If your home sinks, so should your expectations of help.

by Paul Gregoire
Nov 20 2015, 12:00am

Kiribati's Millenial Atoll, also known as Caroline Island. Photo by Flickr user The TerraMar Project

Kiribati is one of the lowest carbon emitting countries in the world, but this Pacific Island nation is confronting some of the most disastrous effects of climate change. Made up of 33 low-lying coral atolls, Kiribati is shrinking as sea levels rise. Last year, the government went as far as buying a tract of land on a Fijian island in order to relocate some of its citizens.

In 30 years' time, it's been predicted the entire nation could be totally submerged, placing its population of 102,000 amongst the estimated 50 to 250 million people facing displacement due to the effects of climate change by the middle of the century.

And while the government of Kiribati has a relocation strategy, those forced to leave countries without one will face even greater barriers when resettling. The UN refugee convention defines a refugee as an individual unable to return to their country due to persecution, effectively excluding those fleeing the hazards of climate change.

Despite last week's terror attacks, the UN COP 21 climate change conference will commence in Paris on November 30. Yet they won't be discussing the movement of people displaced by climate change, as last month, a proposal to establish an international body to coordinate such movements was dropped from the draft agreement.

Butaritari, Kiribati. Photo by Flickr user KevGuy4101

And ahead of the COP 21, Kiribati president Anote Tong is currently in Australia calling for a global moratorium on new coal mines. This comes just after the Australian government has re-approved construction of the Carmichael mine in Queensland, set to be one of the world's largest coal mines.

VICE spoke to Fanny Thornton, assistant professor in law at the University of Canberra whose PhD focused on climate change-related displacement, to discuss what hope lies for those most direly affected.

VICE: What's happening to people from Pacific Island nations like Kiribati who are already being displaced by climate change?
Fanny Thornton: What we saw recently in New Zealand was an applicant from Kiribati who brought a claim to the NZ Immigration and Protection Tribunal, claiming he feared the impact of climate change in his home country and was applying on that basis for refugee status. The tribunal refused to recognize that he's capable of being a refugee, because the international legal framework of how you become a refugee is not really applicable to such people.

But an interesting aspect of that case is the tribunal did not preclude the possibility that there may become a time in the future when, based on human rights and humanitarian obligations, people may become eligible for protection. But that point has not currently been reached.

Last month, a proposal to establish an international body to coordinate the movement of people displaced by climate change was dropped from the COP 21 draft agreement. Why do you think that was? And why do you think the Australian government was one of the main opponents of the proposed body?
At the moment, there's no mention in the draft text whatsoever about any matter to do with human mobility in relation to climate change. In the past, the outcome text of some meetings have had some mention of migration displacement and relocation, but the language has always been very vague, noncommittal, very much against any possibility to start developing any kind of legal or institutional infrastructure.

I imagine that a powerful state like Australia would have opposed any such measure appearing in the draft and certainly in the final text. A lot of powerful states at this point do not really consider that the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is necessarily appropriate for trying to resolve this issue of people displaced by climate change.

There's certainly lots of the more powerful states that are keen to not develop any kind of obligation in this area.

And why do you think this is?
We have a lot of states around the world, including Australia, who are taking a stand of wanting to limit migration of displaced people into their territory. There is this fear in the context of wanting to regulate and minimize such migration already. You don't really want to develop—in the international sphere—further commitments to people that may be displaced for example by environmental reasons.

To date have there been any other international programs set in place to help people displaced by climate change?
Yes. The most promising is called the Nansen Initiative. It's a state-led process to develop a protection agenda that relates to cross-border movements in relation to natural disasters and climate change. The two early adopters of this process were Switzerland and Norway, although Australia joined relatively early.

It has not developed a legal instrument, but just a few weeks ago, there was a meeting following its initial phase in Geneva and over 100 countries endorsed the protection agenda that was developed.

So I guess what we need to see now is how states such as Australia react to this initiative. And see how it is socialized and developed as at least a basic instrument, even as much as a binding one that is highly relevant in the context of people movement and climate change.

And if no changes take place at the international level, what's going to happen to these people?
Well people may end up moving internationally into situations that are quite precarious for them. Legally speaking they may end up in territories where they have very little legal status, which is not a good situation to be in.

You might see securitization in relation to this issue, with states that are fearing they may see an influx of people impacted by the effect of climate change further increasing border security, making it quite difficult for people to then in fact move.

And what isn't highlighted in this scenario is the possibility of trapped populations—populations that really need to move and should, but then become trapped because they really have nowhere to go.

What would you say to the leaders at the COP 21 about climate change-related displacement, if you had the chance?
Leaders should feel encouraged to further build consensus around the issue of migration, displacement, and relocation in the context of climate change. The COP has previously agreed on principles related to this, namely to cooperate and to coordinate under the umbrella of enhanced adaptation action. It is timely to now build on those commitments and to give them expanded content.

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