The Earth is getting hotter, and the line between the shore and the civilization is wavering as sea levels rise to an unprecedented high. For most the impacts of sea level rise can hardly be felt, yet others are already suffering the brunt of the change in oceanic height.
Most recently a Pacific Island man filed his claim as a climate change refugee of New Zealand, and was denied reprieve by the New Zealand government. This landmark case represents a new future in which global warming comes home, and climate change ultimately displaces many of the world’s coastal populations, creating the term ‘climate change refugee.’
The first, but not the last
Kiribati is the first country to have citizens apply for climate change refugee status for a number of reasons. According to the legal proceedings in which the refugee himself, Ioane Teitiota, makes his case for why his family should be able to seek asylum in New Zealand, ”Overcrowding is problem which the Kiribati government has had to confront. A long term problem for the Kiribati government is steadily rising ocean levels attributable to climate change.”
This landmark case represents more than a man trying to keep his family safe in New Zealand. With 2014 being the hottest year ever recorded, this is the first case of a man seeking shelter from the destruction caused by climate change, but it won’t be the last. Teitiota won’t be the last climate change refugee.
Why was he denied as a climate change refugee?
After a lengthy process Teitiota’s appeals to the court were denied for several reasons including his illegal residency in New Zealand when his time there had expired, and the fact that no tangible persecution is waiting for him in Kiribati. Although his pleas were denied Ioane and his family have changed the conversation about climate change to include what are we going to do with all of the refugees?
The future of small nations like Kiribati
The court decided in its final decision to not allow Ioane and his family to become refugees, yet acknowledged that cases such as this one will become more frequent. The decisions would come from much higher courts in regards to what to do with the refugees.
The court concedes: “Novel and optimistic though these submissions might are, they are unconvincing and must fail. On a broad level, were they to succeed and be adopted in other jurisdictions at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare, or indeed presumptive hardships caused by climate change, would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention or under the ICCPR.”
Although this case is close and Ioane will not be allowed to live with his family in New Zealand as climate change refugees, the question of who qualifies as a refugee due to climate change related complications will be a critical debate going forward.