Climate Change and Human Migration: Policy & Legal Implications

Adela Jones

Try and imagine our world in 2050.

Right in the midst of the anthropocene, climate change will have drastically altered the geographical landscape for many of the world’s low-lying nation countries. Rising sea levels, impacting groundwater resources and exacerbating coastal erosion, in addition to projected frequency of natural disasters, will present dire challenges for populations residing at, or near, sea level. It is predicted that by 2050, Kiribati (an archipelago in the South Pacific) will see much of its sovereign territory underwater (United Nations Climate Change Conference, 2017) — and by the end of the century, as much as two-thirds of the archipelago could be inundated. Kiribati is not alone; similar statistics can be found for neighboring Pacific Island nations such as Fiji, Tuvalu, and others. If global mean temperatures continue to rise on the current trajectory and exceed 3°C (Climate Action Tracker, 2018), global mean sea levels are projected to increase by over a meter, rendering such nations inhospitable by 2100 (Letman, 2018). Thus, low-lying nations illustrate the larger, pressing challenges of future large-scale migratory flows that may arise given the severity of anthropogenic climate change, and how these migratory flows intersect with the preservation of state sovereignty and human rights.

Current data points towards climate change acting as a driver of both internal and external migration among low-lying nations, but environmentally induced migration is not a new phenomenon, as humans have traditionally moved in search of better living conditions (Blakemore, 2019). Environmental challenges have historically induced both voluntary and involuntary migration due to the nexus between the environment and human livelihood. However, anthropogenic, or man-made, environmental change, in the form of excess greenhouse gas emissions, has led to unprecedented levels of change, which can be attributed to the greenhouse effect that is slowly shifting the Earth’s mean temperature. On the current “business as usual” trajectory, we will see a three to four degree rise by 2050 (Hultman, 2018). This extreme trend in temperature is expected to result in dramatic shifts in global sea level rise, exacerbation of both drought and natural disasters, and inhospitable temperatures for sustaining human, animal, and marine life. These factors will drastically affect human livelihood by making essential resources, such as habitable and arable land, freshwater, and steady food resources, more difficult to access, especially for those dependent upon marine ecosystems. The gradual rise of mean ocean temperatures will lead to less productive ocean food chains that will in turn impact global food security and the fundamental right to food, as an estimated 4.3 billion people acquire 15% of their animal protein from marine life (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2017). Migration towards more hospitable geographic areas will be a coping mechanism to respond to our changing environment, as well as a means to preserve basic human dignity.

We are already beginning to see the impact of climate change on migration flows. The International Organization for Migration concluded that 20 million individuals were displaced by natural disasters alone in 2007 (Stapleton, Nadin, Watson, and Kellett, 2017); the same paper also suggested that by 2050, up to 200 million could be displaced by climate change-related events. Climate change can have a significant effect on migratory flows through three core areas: reduction of agricultural production and ecosystem services of clean water, increased frequency in extreme weather events and natural disasters, and coastal erosion and sea level rise. Adding to the severity of this phenomenon is that the vast majority of environmental migration will occur within developing countries, which can be especially vulnerable to the externalities of climate change if they are susceptible to the challenges of low average elevations. Countries composed of atolls, or coral reefs, which lie at, or just slightly above, sea level, will see some of the worst consequences of coastal erosion, sea level rise, and vulnerability to natural disasters - calling the future habitability of these countries into question. Further exacerbating these natural geographic vulnerabilities is the lack of infrastructure to instill climate resilience. Thus, migration to environments less impacted by environmental degradation will be an essential part of a strategy to preserve the livelihood and dignity of these populations.

However, there is no consensus among policymakers and academics on what exactly constitutes an environmentally induced migrant. There are many descriptive terms used to encapsulate both externally and internally displaced persons due to environmental degradation, such as ‘environmental migrants’, ‘ecological’ and ‘environmental’ refugees, and ‘climate change migrants’. This lack of consensus renders creating policy solutions and addressing legal issues emanating from this phenomenon difficult. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, applicants for political asylum and refugee status must be persecuted for “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2010). Given these stipulations, individuals displaced from climate change-related phenomena cannot be considered refugees or claim asylum because they do not fall under the purview of the aforementioned criteria. This presents a legal conundrum due to the impact climate change and environmental degradation has on the fundamental human rights afforded to individuals under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as under Article 25, it “protects the human rights of persons to security in case of a lack of livelihood due to circumstances beyond [their] control” (Srilakshmi, 2018). Consequently, these limitations present few options for legal recourse to protect and preserve basic human rights under international law. Despite these limitations, the use of the term ‘climate migrant’ can serve as a catch-all to refer to climate change-related migration in response to long and short-term trends and encompasses both voluntary and involuntary forced migration from the impact of climate change-related phenomena.

It is vital to acknowledge the legal reality concerning large-scale displacement, such as that predicted of island-nations. Such measures being considered are the potential relocation of settlements inland, as to avoid the consequences of catastrophic climate change, as well as the relocation of significant portions of island-states. Like other atoll nations, the Kiribati government has taken the position that climate change will inevitably present detrimental, permanent and long-term consequences towards its citizens and the state’s physical sovereignty (Farbotko, 2018). As such, the Kiribati government has outlined a comprehensive plan to address the externalities of climate change, the crux of which is a long-term strategy referred to as “migration with dignity” (Office of the President of the Republic of Kiribati, n.d.). This concept mainly addresses alleviating populations displaced by rising sea levels and other forms of environmental degradation by seeking visa and other resettlement arrangements to develop expatriate communities across the Pacific region. The preservation of dignity is integral to the Kiribati government’s strategy, because it focuses on the preservation of basic human livelihood at the household and individual levels, ensuring that citizens will have a certain quality of life that addresses their fundamental needs even when participating in cross-border living and labour arrangements. The Kiribati government’s “migration with dignity” strategy was partially realised in 2014, when the government purchased land in Fiji for potential resettlement of its population residing on atolls that are projected to be nearly or completely submerged.

However, this is not an end-all solution; it is estimated that a third of Fijians face the same threats towards their human livelihood and basic human rights as i-Kiribati, as they reside in areas also prone to such environmental disasters as rising tides, drought, and extreme storms (Witschge, 2018).

Upon first glance, basic adaptation measures such as seawall construction may seem feasible. However, there are several shortfalls to achieving these goals. Adapting a low-lying area and population to sea-level rise and resilience to natural disasters also calls for large-scale infrastructure projects, such as sewers, alternative freshwater extraction methods, and housing relocation (Howes, Birchenough, and Lincoln, 2018). Climate adaptation comes at a high price; for example, the construction of seawalls and degradation of pristine beaches would severely impact the Fijian economy due to its high dependency upon tourism. The World Bank estimated that Fiji would need $4.5 billion USD to successfully implement a climate change resilience strategy - funds that the developing nation simply does not have (World Bank, 2017). Fiji is just one example of the very real and imminent dangers other low-lying nation states, such as Bangladesh, face. Unlike island nations, however, such countries will experience more internal migration especially to urban areas, which are already overcrowded and economically constrained due to the overwhelming of labour market supply.

The disproportionate contribution of greenhouse gases to overall emissions by the developed world sheds light on the unequal balance and adverse consequences global warming will have on populations already in a vulnerable position. Fiji, for example, is ranked 92nd among nations for overall carbon emissions, placing it at the bottom of carbon emitters (Climate Watch, 2017). Yet, Fijians will face more externalities resulting from anthropogenic climate change than citizens of developed and more polluting economies, illustrating the fundamental issue of environmental injustice emanating from the developed world onto the developing. Fijians and other citizens of countries disproportionately affected by climate change will see their livelihoods suffer and basic human rights and dignities infringed upon for a phenomenon they largely did not contribute towards. This form of injustice has been a recurring theme in New Zealand. In 2017, the New Zealand government announced that it is considering a new visa category for environmentally displaced persons specifically from Pacific Island nations (Anderson, 2017). This was not the first time that New Zealand has addressed the notion of a climate migrant. In 2014, two high-profile court cases tested the idea of a ‘climate refugee’. Ioane Teitiota applied to become the world’s first climate change refugee “on the basis of changes to his environment in Kiribati caused by sea level rise associated with climate change” (Buchanan, 2015). Although both were struck down by the Supreme Court of New Zealand, the cases raised awareness of the nexus surrounding climate change, human rights and environmental justice, and the grim reality of mass displacement.

Climate change and subsequent human migration will raise significant legal challenges in the future. Self-determination, status of the displaced, and nationhood, will all come into question over the next few decades. Developing nations will be adversely impacted due to their lack of economic resources to adequately address, let alone implement, adaptation measures. Because we are increasingly unlikely to be on target to mitigate greenhouse gases in order to prevent the onset of ‘dangerous’ climate change - or above 1.5 °C - we need to consider the legal challenges and policy implications related to this phenomenon and enact feasible adaptation pathways through policy interventions such as adaptation measures. Sustainable adaptation measures and plans to relocate significant populations, while also preserving state sovereignty of low-lying nations and their people, are challenges that must be discussed now.

If we are to adequately prepare for the future, humanity must come together as a global community and put in place provisions to protect future generations and vulnerable populations from bearing the consequences of environmental injustices. This is especially paramount for citizens of developed countries, who disproportionately contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions that in turn inflict harm through accelerated environmental degradation in the developing world. We must come to a global consensus and implement a comprehensive strategy to prepare for, and address, an anthropogenic new world order dominated by drastic environmental consequences for those at risk, while preserving human dignity and basic universal human rights.

This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”

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