At the confluence of the rugged Himalayan, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush ranges lies a place called the Throne of the Mountain Gods, where K2 and seven of the world’s 14 tallest peaks glitter in the thin air. This remote region of Pakistan bristles with the severe beauty of the largest concentration of glaciers outside of the Arctic Circle, including the Baltoro, the longest glacier outside of the polar regions and one so large it is visible from space. This rugged icescape is home to the people of Baltistan, who live as they have for centuries, as subsistance farmers. Of late, meltwaters from glacial bodies that used to remain frozen year round are causing severe downstream flooding, called Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. The resulting crop and livestock loss has exacerbated food insecurity in an already fragile environment.
The people of Baltistan, along with millions across the world, are threatened with mass displacement due to the earth’s rising ambient temperatures. Floods, rising sea levels, droughts, and desertification are rendering uninhabitable the homes of communities throughout the world, even as climate change gradually makes other regions more suitable for agriculture. The Secretary General’s 2012 report to the UN General Assembly on Human Rights and Migration predicts that up to 250 million people may be displaced by climate change by the year 2050. This represents nearly four times the number of displaced persons and refugees currently eligible for protection under the UNHCR mandate. Climate hotspots—low-lying islands, large river deltas, and coastal and arid regions—may undergo dramatic environmental change.
Climate change aggravates competition for resources like water, food, and grazing lands in places where people have lived for millennia, potentially triggering violent conflict. In Syria, for example, record drought and massive crop failure beginning in 2006 led to the mass migration of predominately Sunni farmers to Alawi-dominated cities, increasing sectarian tensions and generating conflicts over diminished resources. While the roots of the Syrian conflict are multifaceted, climate and desertification are key elements that compounded with other causes. In 2011, more than a million people fled the combined effects of severe drought and prolonged conflict in Somalia.
Rural and coastal residents forced to migrate to urban areas face numerous problems. Skills such as fishing, herding, and farming are difficult to translate into employment-based livelihoods in cities. The potential for conflict rises when municipal services, including educational and health care systems, are forced to adjust to a sudden rise in population of people with differing languages or customs. The difficulties are frequently the combined result of pressures such a natural disaster, conflict, weak governance, and poverty. Disasters may strike in regions already wracked by conflict or may operate sequentially, with one forcing a family from its home and the other prompting it to move yet again.
Victims of these kinds of multi-causal systemic breakdowns may be described as climate refugees, but this is a category of displaced persons that is, as yet, unprotected by international law. Such refugees face greater political risks than ones who flee their homes due to war or political oppression. Unlike traditional refugees, climate refugees may be forced back to devastated homelands or into refugee camps. Under current international law, climate-induced, cross-border migrations trigger few if any protections or assistance mechanisms.
Our current international legal frameworks were put to the test in 2015, when Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national, lost his appeal for asylum in New Zealand in a case that would have made him the world’s first climate refugee. Teitiota claimed his island home was sinking, thereby becoming uninhabitable. His lawyers argued that the people of Kiribati were being persecuted by the world’s major carbon emitters, who had expressed a complete lack of concern. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; the New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled that, while climate change is a major and growing concern, “its effect on countries like Kiribati is not appropriately addressed under the 1951 Refugee Convention.” Thus, individuals such as Teitiota cannot turn to existing international law when slow-onset environmental issues such as sinking islands or eroding coastal lands render them homeless. The judge worried that accepting climate change refugees would open the door to “millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation”—surely a cynical description for having one’s home drown in the ocean.
The New Zealand Court’s decision should draw our attention to the lack of protections for this growing category of refugees. In order to advance the international debate, we should either revise the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees to include climate refugees or negotiate a new convention to guarantee specific rights and protections for them. Otherwise, the international legal regime will violate the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between richer and less economically developed nations. Allowing the world’s most prolific carbon emitters to ignore the mass displacement of other peoples would threaten the equality principle of global law, as well as international security.
International consensus on protection of displaced people affected by climate change must be based on the understanding of the complex relationship between conflict and disaster in displacement. The two, layered with poverty and weak governance, together influence decisions to leave a disaster-affected region.
While Australia and New Zealand are among the first countries to face petitions from climate refugees, they will not be the last; indeed we should expect climate refugees to make their way to American shores and courts in the near future. If the world does not arrive at a means of protecting them, including legal recognition of their status as victims, it will find itself unprepared in the face of new violent conflicts and other indirect impacts of climate change. We must build greater systems resilience in the face of this onrushing reality. We can no longer afford to sweep these issues under the rug.