In the lead up to last year’s landmark climate conference in Paris, Tony de Brum, foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, likened the mass-exodus facing his country’s people to a form of genocide. An urgent plea for action and greater ambition for a new climate agreement, Mr De Brum’s intervention was a clear acknowledgement of the stark future confronting low‑lying Pacific islands.
According to most reports, 2015 was the hottest year on record. For the first time, average global temperatures tipped over the one-degree warming threshold. The world is heating up and climate change is already starting to have dramatic impacts. Contributing to conflicts, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, and supercharging storms, it is also beginning to drive people from their homes. The UNHCR has predicted that in the coming decades climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacement worldwide, far outstripping current flows of refugees.
For people in the Pacific, these predictions are already a reality. Unless urgent action is taken to address climate change, relocation may become their only option. Indeed, for many, it may already be unavoidable. Despite the scale of this impending disaster, no international agreement currently exists to address it. The already stretched international refugee regime provides no protection for people displaced by climate change. The international climate agreement, updated in Paris, is only just starting to confront the issue.
In light of these failings, many Pacific Island countries are taking matters into their own hands. Proactively pursuing a strategy of “migration with dignity”, they are leading local and regional solutions to secure their people’s future. However, they won’t be able to manage this alone. Further international coordination is essential, as is regional leadership. As both a high-emitting country and regional power, Australia has a vital role to play in supporting these efforts.
Canaries in the climate coal mine
The citizens of the Pacific Islands are widely regarded as being among the most exposed to the impacts of climate change. The Marshall Islands, for example, is currently struggling through the worst drought in the country’s history. Just this week an emergency “disaster” declaration was issued to secure urgent aid assistance from the US. Throughout the region more generally, a string of severe cyclones has left a trail of destruction in recent years. Coastal flooding, erosion, drought and rising salinity levels are a daily reality.
Despite their scale, the people of the Pacific Islands are confronting these challenges head-on. Detailed and coordinated adaptation planning is well underway. Buildings are being reinforced, water tanks installed, mangroves planted and sea-walls built. Even proposals for the construction of floating islands are now being seriously considered However, as the oceans continue to rise and the weather gets weirder, even the most radical local adaptation measures may not be enough.
Climate change and forced displacement
While the people of the Pacific Islands may be on the front-line of the fight against climate change, they are certainly not the only ones facing displacement. In 2014 alone, it is estimated that over 20 million people world-wide were forced from their homes by environmental disasters. In 2012 it was over 30 million.
Obviously, not all of these environmental disasters can be attributed to climate change. And not all of the people displaced will seek to leave their home country. People may move internally, or, for people without the means to travel, simply be trapped and forced to suffer the consequences. Many will also seek to return and rebuild once the disaster has passed.
In light of these issues, it is perhaps not surprising that the exact numbers of people that are, or will be, displaced by climate change are highly contested. The most commonly cited figure suggests that by 2050, as many as 200 million people may have been forced to flee their home countries.
International governance gaps
In legal terms, there is no such thing as a “climate change refugee”. Under the 1951 Refugees Convention, refugee status is granted only to a person who has a “well founded fear of persecution” based on specific reasons, such as, race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. People displaced by environmental factors simply do not fall within this narrow definition.
Given the already tense politics surrounding refugee protection, there is also significant reluctance, particularly amongst Pacific Island leaders, to advocate for the extension of the definition in the Refugees Convention. In this context, a focus on “migration with dignity” is seen as preferable to the victimisation that may come with a refugee classification.
So far, the international climate change regime has also been mostly silent on the issue. Following strong advocacy from Pacific Island nations, the Paris Agreement establishes a new task force to consider the problem of climate displacement. However, funding is yet to be allocated to this task force and there is no suggestion at this stage that the task force will develop a new binding international regime. At best, it may further develop the voluntary set of principles developed by the Nansen Initiative and coordinate national policy measures.
Regional responses for “migration with dignity”
In the absence of a comprehensive international regime, local and regional responses to displacement from climate change will be necessary. Given the dramatic variation in impacts of climate change and the differing capacity of populations to adapt to these challenges, there are also benefits to this approach.
The most threatened Pacific Island states are now pursuing such a pragmatically regional strategy of “migration with dignity”. While the Marshall Islands is in the fortunate position of having a longstanding migration arrangement with the United States, this is not the case for all. Kiribati, for example, has recently purchased a large portion of land in Fiji and is negotiating relocationarrangements. With some success, both Kiribati and Tuvalu have also been pursuing concessional “merits-based migration” arrangements with their larger neighbours New Zealand and Australia.
Weathering the storm
Undoubtedly, the most effective means of minimising the impacts of climate change on displacement and migration is to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But a certain amount of dangerous warming is already locked in and some climate change migration is now inevitable.
In light of the existing governance gaps, the move towards regional solutions is a positive way forward. In order to be effective however, this will need to be scaled-up and carried out in a legal, planned, safe, timely and respectful way. Undoubtedly, greater international coordination will help in achieving these goals. Regional leadership will also be essential.
As a historically high-emitting country and power in the region, Australia has both moral and pragmatic reasons for taking on this role. So far however, we have been slow to step up. As the planet continues to heat up we must work closely with our Pacific Island neighbours to set an example to the rest of the world on addressing the serious challenge of climate change displacement.
Daniel Wiseman is an Australian lawyer. He is currently researching and studying international climate change law and policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.