Friday, November 1, 2013

Sea level rise and climate change refugees

UPDATE 2: A New Zealand judge yesterday rejected the refugee claim made by Mr. Teitiota, the Kiribati man who is the subject of the following post. For more, please click here.

UPDATE 1: The ideas expressed in the following post have appeared in The Globe and Mail, in a much more succinct and readable format. I would highly encourage the reader to read it there first, and then, if interested, come back to this early version if you want to follow some of the html links to related stories. Many thanks to The Globe for their support. R.

As mentioned in my previous post, I participated in Monday’s CBC radio program The Current, where the topic of conversation was Ioane Teitiota. Mr. Teitiota may not have been seeking fame when he moved to New Zealand, but he is now getting it. He is the first person, so far as we know, to request asylum in a common-law country on the basis of being a climate change refugee. A native of Kiribati – a small island state in the South Pacific – Mr. Teitiota has asked the government of New Zealand to not force him and his family to return home, on the grounds that sea level rise is making Kiribati uninhabitable. Many young people from Kiribati and other Pacific island states have migrated to New Zealand over the years to find work and remit money to those back home. New Zealand even has immigration programs to facilitate this type of labor migration. Mr Teitiota first went to New Zealand as a legal, temporary worker, but he stayed on and his visa expired.  Now, he is asking for refuge. A lower court has accepted as fact his evidence that high tides repeatedly breach the seawalls protecting his home community, and that rising seas are killing crops, contaminating drinking water, and flooding homes. The lower court nonetheless rejected Mr. Teitiota’s asylum application, finding that the impacts of sea level rise do not constitute grounds for protection under international refugee law. He has appealed that decision to a higher court; the verdict is pending.

Mr. Teitiota's asylum claim may simply be an innovative, last-ditch attempt to avoid deportation. Just the same, his claim is bringing the attention of courts, governments, and media to a subject that was previously a speculative, academic one. Studies by scholars and NGOs have projected that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced in this century by the impacts of climate change. The popular media has scoured the globe for climate change refugees, claiming to find them in places as disparate as West Africa, Vanuatu, and the coast of Alaska. At the United Nations, the Security Council has considered the subject, and stated that it is best dealt with through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Through this process, least developed countries have been encouraged to consider the migration implications of climate change in their National Adaptation Plans, and in meetings at Cancun in 2010, UNFCCC delegates stated that migration and displacement are issues that ought to be planned for in the context of adaptation. Mr. Teitiota is accelerating the discussion by saying, in essence, “This isn’t an abstract concept; it’s happening now in my home country, and I am a refugee because of it.”

If the New Zealand court finds him to be a refugee, expect more people to make similar claims, in New Zealand and elsewhere. I suspect the court will not make such a finding. The internationally accepted definition of a refugee was established in a 1951 UN convention. To qualify for protection, a refugee must have a legitimate fear of persecution in his or her home country. The environment does not persecute, nor do sea levels. Only humans persecute one another, through threats or acts of violence. Mr. Teitiota may find it difficult to pursue his livelihood in Kiribati, but he will not be persecuted if he returns there. And so it is likely that, unless humanitarian or compassionate grounds particular to his circumstances are invoked, he and his family will be required to return home. But even if Mr. Teitiota goes away, the question of what to do about people displaced by the impacts of climate change will not.

There are many ways that climate change may displace people and change global migration patterns in coming decades, including droughts, floods, tropical storms, and declining food and water security. For a complete review of these, perhaps consider purchasing my new book (pardon the shameless self-promotion). For now, I would like to focus on sea level rise, its specific implications for population displacement and migration, and possible response options.

To begin with, the science is increasingly conclusive that human-induced climate change is causing sea levels to rise. Not by much; at present only a couple millimeters per year on average, but for atoll nations like Kiribati where the land is no more than a metre or two above the sea, even that rate of change is problematic. An atoll is a low-lying, ring-shaped island built of coral that sits upon an extinct, undersea volcano. Atolls are common in the South Pacific and parts of the Indian Ocean. The most populous atoll nation is the Maldives, with 340,000 people. Kiribati has a population of about 100,000. Despite sea level rise, not all atolls are shrinking in area. It depends upon the underlying geology particular to each atoll. Some atolls are being pushed upward by tectonic activity beneath them (called uplift); others are subsiding. It’s the ones that are subsiding that are at greatest risk, since sea level rise accelerates their gradual disappearance beneath the waves. 

There are a few small islands that are already in trouble. The Carteret Islands off the coast of New Guinea are one example where people are starting to be relocated. The Carterets are part of a larger nation, Papua New Guinea, which has plenty of land, most of which is in no danger of being lost to rising seas. This is not the case for states like Kiribati or the Maldives; they have no high ground to which people could be relocated. Seeing that the rest of the world shows little interest in curbing its greenhouse gas emissions, the government of Kiribati appears to have resigned itself to its fate. It is encouraging its citizens to migrate elsewhere, and has begun purchasing land in Fiji to provide a possible destination. The government of the Maldives is looking at building artificial islands as a place of refuge. Other engineering ideas have been floated (pardon the pun), but few seem viable in the long run.

Should the international community expand the legal definition of a refugee, so that people displaced by the impacts of climate change qualify for protection under the UN Convention? This is not a good idea, and probably wouldn’t get very far with international policymakers. The existing definition is clear and well-established. Approximately 10 million people worldwide presently meet the existing definition – people like those fleeing the conflict in Syria – and the international community does a poor job of protecting them. There is no point in officially designating more people as refugees if we are not prepared to provide meaningful assistance to the current ones.

The number of people worldwide who might benefit from being designated ‘refugees’ because of sea level rise is not especially large, numbering in the hundreds of thousands over the next fifty years. This is because the number of states that consist exclusively of low-lying islands is relatively small. A refugee is someone who has fled his or her country of origin. Tens of millions of people worldwide live in low-lying coastal areas exposed to sea level rise (several million in Shanghai alone), but most of them inhabit continental coastal areas or coastlines of non-atoll islands, meaning they would not need to be resettled to another country. Internal displacement has very different political dynamic from the situation faced by countries like Kiribati.

This does not mean people who are internally displaced by sea level rise would not need assistance. On the contrary, past experience shows that internally displaced people typically suffer severe hardship in the short-term, and lower socio-economic well-being over the long-term. We know this from big examples, like the millions displaced by construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China, and smaller ones like the relocation of residents of St. Kilda to the Scottish mainland in the early 20th century. The UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that people internally displaced for environmental reasons are entitled to international assistance, but the Guiding Principles are non-binding and, to my knowledge, have never been invoked in practice. 

Another problem is one of definition and causality. Sea level rise is relatively straightforward to track, but other potential impacts of climate change are less obvious. For example, the intensity of tropical cyclones is expected to increase in coming decades. Cyclones occur naturally; human induced climate change exacerbates them. So, does the international community want to offer guaranteed assistance to all people displaced by cyclones (something we do not do now), or only in those instances where scientists believe climate change has aggravated the harm caused? Or what if the cyclone is determined to be ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) but sea level rise enabled its storm surge to penetrate farther inland than it otherwise would have? Further, would we really want to guarantee protection to those who flee the storm but not to those left behind (and who may be in a worse predicament than the ‘refugee’)? This is a very messy can of worms indeed.

There will inevitably be situations this century where people will come to harm as result of our refusal to control greenhouse gas emissions now. In cases like Kiribati, where the absolute number of people being harmed is relatively small, the international community can (and probably will) offer assistance on an ad hoc basis, as needed. This is not ideal, given the uncertainty that will be experienced by those whose lives will be affected, but it’s the way we’ve typically responded in the past, with varying degrees of success. Canada, for example, took ad hoc measures to facilitate the migration of people following earthquakes in Italy (1976) and Haiti (2010). Each year, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US collectively accept roughly 2.5 million legal permanent resident immigrants. With minor regulatory changes to their existing migration programs, these countries could easily resettle those displaced from small island states, obviating the need for any tinkering with international refugee law.      

The big challenge – the one we must start planning for now, and for which there is no simple solution – will come when densely populated urban centres along the coasts of China, Vietnam, and the US, among others, begin experiencing more severe tropical storms, made worse by rising sea levels. Remember the damage and harm caused by “superstorm” Sandy last year, and Hurricane Katrina a few years earlier? The scientific evidence points to there being more such events in the future, not less. The Chinese economic powerhouse of Shanghai, and its tens of millions of residents, sits in a sinking river delta only a few meters above rising seas, in a region prone to tropical cyclones. Similar risks exist in densely populated river deltas across Asia. The costs to relocate people would be astronomical, and cause severe damage to the global economy. Fortunately, there is still time to plan and prepare for such contingencies through the UNFCCC process and, better yet, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid those displacements altogether. But our planning will need to be done at a much faster rate than has been the case until now. Mr. Teitiota should be thanked for prodding us in this direction.

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