Climate change is one of the most serious threats to sustainable development and to the very survival of Pacific Island Countries and communities. In 2007 the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders reiterated their deep concern over this serious and growing threat to the economic, social and environmental well being of Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs), their communities, peoples and cultures. They have been calling on the international community to take concerted action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere since 1990. Adaptation to climate change is now an inevitable requirement, as the Earth begins responding to greenhouse gases already emitted. In this regard the Leaders recognised the special concerns and interests of the small low lying island countries on the adverse implications of climate change, in particular sea level rise.
In 2007 the Pacific Islands Leaders called on the international community to reach agreement urgently on an effective global response to deliver on the ultimate objective of the UNFCCC to avoid dangerous levels of interference with the climate system, including further commitments in the future by all major greenhouse gas emitters to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; and to increase and mobilise financial and technical resources to support adaptation efforts in vulnerable developing countries. They recognised that climate change is a long-term international challenge and that an effective international response would require a resolute and concerted international effort, including effective action in particular by the world’s major greenhouse gas emitting countries to reduce their emissions and by all countries to adapt to the changes that climate change will bring. The rise in water levels is explained most notable by the melting of ice. When an icecap melts because the ocean has reheated, the water level rises. These icecaps were produced and have existed since the end of the Ice Age, around 20,000 years ago. Such is the context for the plea of the Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Spoaga, who went to Brussels, for Europeans to diminish their carbon dioxide emissions.
In recent years, satellites have detected an elevation in the level of the waters of three millimeters per year. According to figures given by the International Climate Research Program, this rise is superior in significance compared to past centuries.
The islands are also heavily subject to increased quantities of turbulent weather caused by rising temperatures.
Climate change refugees
Millions of people are expected to be displaced by the climate crisis as sea levels rise, swaths of land become uninhabitable and natural disasters become more severe and frequent. In a 2018 report, the World Bank predicted that 143 million people in South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa could become climate migrants.
The problem is that climate refugees is a status that does not yet exist in international law. The court has not released a definition for such refugees. Only a draft convention was presented last year to protect those who are forcibly displaced. But the current system of international law is not equipped to protect climate migrants, as there are no legally binding agreements obliging countries to support climate migrants.
In 2015, the Teitota family applied for refugee status in New Zealand, fleeing the disappearing island nation of Kiribati. case, the first request for refuge explicitly attributed climate change, made it to the High Court of New Zealand but was ultimately dismissed.
The UNHCR has thus far refused to grant these people refugee status, instead designating them as “environmental migrants,” in large part because it lacks the resources to address their needs. But with no organized effort to supervise the migrant population, these desperate individuals go where they can, not necessarily where they should. As their numbers grow, it will become increasingly difficult for the international community to ignore this challenge. As severe climate change displaces more people, the international community may be forced to either redefine “refugees” to include climate migrants or create a new legal category and accompanying institutional framework to protect climate migrants. However, opening that debate in the current political context would be fraught with difficulty. Currently, the nationalist, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic atmosphere in Europe and the U.S. would most likely lead to limiting refugee protections rather than expanding them.
Until now, Finland and Sweden are the only countries that include “environmental migrants” as “persons otherwise in need of protection” in their official state immigration and asylum policy. Both recognise “environmental migrants” as a category of individuals who are “unable to return to the country of origin because of an environmental disaster” and offer protection.