Last week a court in New Zealand passed a potentially landmark ruling over what initially seems like rather a minor issue – the immigration of a single family from the Pacific island of Kiribati (pronounced kirr-e-bas, despite those final two letters). The family was returned to the island nation, but it is the reason for their applying for refugee status in the first place which is interesting here. They claimed that they were ‘climate refugees’, fleeing from a country which will probably become uninhabitable within the next twenty years due to rising sea levels caused by climate change.
This is not the first time the world has heard of the concept of a climate refugee – in fact, the Pacific islands have been trying to push the idea for some time now, as they prepare for their seemingly inevitable destruction. New Zealand has long been seen as the greatest hope for a country to take in climate refugees from the islands, due to their comparatively liberal stance on immigration compared to their much larger neighbour Australia and their relatively peaceful (though by no means perfect) accommodation with the native Maori population, themselves originally Pacific islanders in the distant past. Nevertheless, despite still having ample empty space within their borders, it seems New Zealand is not yet ready to set that precedent and risk being overwhelmed with applications from Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and other Pacific islands in the region.
But it’s not just the islands near New Zealand that will soon need help – this problem is due to spread across the world. The Maldives is one of the most famous examples of a country that will almost certainly not exist by the middle of the century, with former president Mohamed Nasheed famously once holding a cabinet meeting underwater, clad in full scuba gear, to highlight the problem. Even larger and richer countries face potential catastrophe, with the vast majority of the population of Vietnam living in vulnerable coastal regions – and with very little interior to move to in that narrow country.
So the first potential climate refugees may not have succeeded in their attempts, and no legal precedent has been set. But a precedent has been set in terms of asking the question itself. We will soon need to start addressing it with more regularity, and with it we will need to address issues that normally don’t crop up in contemporary international relations – issues of morality and culpability for abstract problems like climate change. Clearly there is no individual person who is responsible for climate change – but does this mean out responsibility to the victims can be brushed aside? Or do we need to start accepting collective, historical responsibility for what is happening in Kiribati, the Maldives, and elsewhere?
This is perhaps the most startling example of the need for climate justice. No longer is climate change affecting ‘only’ individuals or small groups. Instead, it threatens to destroy the land of a people who have lived there for centuries. Potentially it will destroy their culture too, as they move to new territories and become dispersed around the globe. In a situation like this, it is not enough to bury our heads in the sand, or to keep pushing the problem to the backs of our minds, stating that we will address it on another day – these questions, and the complex, multifaceted answers they require, need to be examined now.
Article prepared by John Wish