In May 2014, the New Zealand Court of Appeal dismissed a claim by Kiribati national Ioane Teitiota that he and his family are “climate refugees” and therefore should be allowed to stay in New Zealand.
Teitiota argued that sea level rise due to climate change was making his country uninhabitable and in effect forced his family to seek refuge. The court dismissed Teitiota’s request on the grounds that environmental migrants are not covered under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Meanwhile, as Teitiota’s claim was winding its way through the New Zealand legal system, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fifth Assessment Report. The report provides stark details on the implications of sea level rise over the coming decades and what it means for countries like Kiribati and other islands or low-lying coastal regions. It further states that, even with lower emission scenarios, 1.3 metres of sea level rise is “locked in” over the next century, potentially making 15% of the world’s islands uninhabitable. Higher emissions will lead to more melting and will threaten more island habitats.
The IPCC report and other evidence clearly show that the effects of climate change are happening more quickly and are often more severe and unpredictable than anticipated. Among other devastating climate impacts, such as the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, numerous studies now recognize the potential for mass displacement and relocation of peoples and communities around the world and the associated threats to the social, cultural and economic fabric of their communities. Regardless of the causes, forced displacement and relocation have predictable consequences for marginalized communities.
The 1996 Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada found that:
The results of more than 25 studies around the world indicate without exception that the relocation, without informed consent, of low-income rural populations with strong ties to their land and homes is a traumatic experience. For the majority of those who have been moved, the profound shock of compulsory relocation is much like the bereavement caused by the death of a parent, spouse or child.
The New Zealand court decision illustrates the gap between the moral challenge we face and the legal frameworks that are inadequate to address climate-induced displacement and migration, both within and across borders. In response to this challenge, people in affected regions are combining forces and working together to achieve climate justice. One such example is the Many Strong Voices (MSV) programme, which brings together people and organizations in the Arctic and SIDS to take action on climate change and links people and regions that might not otherwise realize their common interests.
In the Arctic and SIDS, discussions are already underway. The complex interplay of extreme weather events coupled with slow onset processes, such as erosion and sea level rise, are endangering the lives, livelihoods and cultures of the inhabitants of these coastal and island communities. Accelerated rates of erosion or flooding are threatening dozens of these communities. Traditional methods of reducing vulnerability and building resilience are unable to protect communities, and therefore community-based relocation is the only feasible solution.
In September 2012, MSV launched an initiative to connect and build the capacity of communities that are facing relocation. In partnership with the Center for International Environmental Law and the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, MSV held a dialogue between community leaders from Newtok, Alaska, and the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea to learn how informed and participatory decision-making can guide these relocations, minimize adverse effects, and foster community resilience. The people in the Carterets, like those in other Small Island Developing States (SIDS), understand there is a direct connection between sea ice decline and other changes in the Arctic and the adverse impacts they are experiencing. This relationship between regions that might otherwise be seen as remote and unconnected is the foundation of Many Strong Voices.
Building on this initial dialogue, MSV held a global consultation, the Warsaw Dialogue, with affected peoples and communities – as well as civil society representatives, researchers and policymakers – to identify their needs as a means to develop appropriate tools and resources to assist such communities in their relocation efforts. Held on 18 November 2013 during the UNFCCC negotiations (COP19), the Warsaw Dialogue provided an opportunity to learn from those who are engaged in community relocation processes or relocation policies. The aim was to discuss the challenges communities face (as well as the opportunities) to gain a better understanding of the tools and resources needed to ensure that affected peoples and communities can meaningfully participate in relevant decision-making processes.
As one participant from the Pacific said, “We must be pragmatic in our approach, given how quickly some small islands are going under water. We need to educate people about the impacts of climate change on their lives and livelihoods.” All in all, this is the primary objective of MSV’s dialogues and consultations, for those affected to share their experiences and what they’ve learned along the way with a diverse network of people facing similar situations.
One thing we’ve learned is that, despite the devastating effects climate change is already having on coastal and island communities around the world, the stories of Newtok and the Carteret Islands and other communities are not about climate “victims” or “refugees”, but rather about problem solvers. They are about leadership in the face of extreme challenges and threats to one’s cultural heritage and survival. They are about overcoming those challenges using local and traditional knowledge and decision-making processes – and a whole lot of creativity. And they are about the strength and resilience of two communities that are taking the necessary actions to relocate to ensure the cultural resilience and long-term sustainability of their respective communities. The law will follow. More
John Crump is Senior Advisor/Climate Change, GRID-Arendal, Ottawa, Canada