Faced with deportation from New Zealand in 2012, a family of four from the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu offered a novel argument as to why they should be allowed to stay.
Climate change was making the island archipelago increasingly uninhabitable. Rising ocean levels were flooding land that had previously been habitable on an island chain where the highest point was only 15 feet above sea level. As a result, the family argued, New Zealand’s Immigration and Protection Tribunal should allow them to stay.
If the argument had swayed the court, the family – whose names were not revealed in court filings—would have been the world’s first legally recognized “environmental" or "climate" refugees. Instead, the New Zealand court ruled in June that the family could stay in the country for other humanitarian reasons—including the presence of other family members—and thus didn’t reach a decision on the family’s environmental plea.
The concept of “environmental” or “climate change” refugees, people who emigrate from their home country because climate change is making it uninhabitable, is gaining traction as changing weather patterns become more apparent. One widely cited figure, by Oxford University environmentalist Norman Myers, estimates that as many as 200 million people could become “environmental refugees” within this century as changing rainfall patterns, severe droughts and rising sea levels force people to move from their homes. Yet defining exactly what makes someone an environmental refugee is a matter of debate.
Steve Trent, director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, an advocacy group, says the concept is needed to explain new patterns of forced human migration.
“We feel it underscores the human rights dimension of climate and that it successfully articulates the reality that a form of refugeehood—the experience of involuntarily leaving one’s home due to persecution—is an inherent feature of the unequal global distribution of responsibility for climate change,” he says.
Others say the term “environmental refugees” itself makes little sense. Benjamin Schraven, who researches environmental policy for the German Development Institute, says human migration has always been influenced by multiple forces, including economic, political and cultural factors.
“There’s no automatism that more environmental change means more migration,” he says. “People are seldom fleeing their homes only because of an environmental hazard. Usually, it’s due to a combination of factors, like conflicts, fragile states and natural hazards.”
A refugee from Somalia, for example, is not only leaving a country where climate change may have exacerbated droughts, but is also leaving a country torn by conflict, where women may be publicly stoned for adultery and where there is little economic opportunity even in years with good rainfall.
Natural disasters, including hurricanes, have long forced people from their homes, but as climate change shifts weather patterns and increases the severity of storms, singling out environmental refugees poses special challenges, says Tamer Afifi, an academic officer at the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security.
“If we’re talking about floods and other natural disasters, it’s clear that environmental factors play a key role in the migration decision,” Afifi says. “But that means we have to examine the cases individually, which is, in itself, a challenge.”
Take Typhoon Haiyan, the 2013 super cyclone that killed at least 6,000 people in the Philippines and forced 4 million others from their homes. The cyclone was among the strongest ever recorded, yet as the scientific journal Nature pointed out shortly afterwards, there is only limited scientific evidence indicating climate change is making such storms more severe.
Yet even amid uncertainty about the degree to which climate change contributes to natural disasters like Haiyan or the 2011 drought in East Africa, it’s likely climate change is contributing to long-term shifts in population movement. Rising sea levels and drying climates in some parts of the world have already triggered an increase in migration for environmental reasons—even in the absence of a major disaster like a hurricane or drought, according to a 2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute..
But because each situation is different, policymakers and researchers have struggled to define the status—and therefore the rights, of the people who are affected.
“For us, the most problematic aspect of climate-induced displacement is the fact that we simply don’t have a coherent set of laws or policies at the international level to provide assistance or protection to those affected,” says Trent.
As Susan Martin, a professor of international migration at Georgetown University points out, even the term “refugee” has a precise definition in international law: someone with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social or political group.
“Most of those who may be displaced by environmental factors do not fit the definition,” she says. “That doesn’t make them any less needing of protection and assistance from their own governments or the international community. It just means that they should not be called refugees.”
Yet a more coherent definition may emerge as the effects of climate change become more apparent, especially in critical cases like those of low-lying island states like Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives. Kiribati, about 1,300 miles (2,092 kilometers) south of Hawaii, may disappear under the rising sea sometime within this century—and its supply of freshwater may be eliminated even before then. That would leave its more than 100,000 people effectively stateless—victims of climate change largely caused by the actions of those in countries thousands of miles away.
“What we need to start considering, in a clear-headed and rational way, is how people are going to move in a world which is four, five or six degrees Celsius warmer, where large swathes of the globe are uninhabitable or constantly wracked by extreme weather events,” says Trent. “This kind of world is not a vague possibility; it’s the upper-end of the worst case scenario projections for the end of the century.”