In the middle of the Pacific Ocean rests a cluster of ring-shaped coral reefs, also called atolls. These 32 atolls, together, make up the island nation of Kiribati. Natural resources are scarce in this country, though it is a major exporter of hand-caught ornamental fish. Beyond its quaintness and tropical weather, Kiribati is unique in that it may be one of the first nations to be swallowed up as a result of climate change-- conservative estimates suggest that in about 30 years, it will no longer exist.
The World Bank estimates that 143 million people will be forcibly moved from their homes because of climate change by the year 2050. The effects of climate change, such as floods, fires, and droughts are encroaching on habitable areas. In Kiribati, where 2 of its original 34 atolls are already wiped out by the ocean, people are faced with a difficult decision. Some have migrated inland while remaining residents on the atolls have to choose between rebuilding or abandoning an area destroyed and plagued by natural disasters. Should the people of the island nation decide to relocate, they might be considered “climate refugees,” a status that has no official definition.
Climate-induced migration is becoming increasingly prevalent . In 2017, alone, over 68.5 million people were forced to leave their homes. There are two main ways that climate change causes people to move: sudden onset and slow-onset. Sudden onsets entail immediate weather events and are thus less predictable. Slow-onset effects, on the other hand, are predictable, and their causes are much more closely linked to human activities. Kiribati’s case is one example of a nation suffering from slow-onset effects. The Climate Research Institute estimates that there will be nearly 63 million people forced to migrate from South Asia, alone, because of slow-onset effects.
The government of Kiribati has purchased some 6,000 acres of land in Fiji in order to accommodate those moving out of the island nation. Since the eventual destruction of this climate nation is just a matter of time, many citizens have had opportunities to reflect on what the best course of action would be for them. By comparison, not all countries have the opportunity to plan ahead: Myanmar and Indonesia are particularly prone to sudden onset effects, like cyclones and tsunamis.
The case of Kiribati draws in interesting political questions. Since the country in its original form will eventually cease to exist, the status of the citizens who haven’t left the country by legal means will be a moot point. Moreover, they will likely migrate to Fijian island of Vanua Levu. What, then, becomes of Kiribati? The people of Kiribati, with their culture and heritage, will be left without a place to call home.
The legal status of climate refugees
Much of the confusion around the “climate refugee” term is amplified by the lack of legal status associated with it. Although the media and many politicians have labeled people moving because of climate change “climate refugees,” they are not technically refugees. To be a refugee, an individual must meet certain qualifications established by international law. This international law, named the 1951 Refugee Convention, requires countries to protect people who qualify as refugees.
However, this law does not include displacement due to climate change as a qualification to be considered a refugee. Thus, “climate refugee” is a misnomer . Because people moving due to climate change are not legally defined as refugees, countries are not obligated to provide them with any protections, including allowing them to enter the country. As a result, “climate refugees,” or more accurately climate migrants, are left in legal and social limbo : they are unsafe in their homes but may have limited places to go.
The future of climate migration
As climate change continues to intensify, even people in developed nations (countries that are more likely to have technology that can be used to adapt to the effects of climate change) are being forced to leave their homes. In the US, for example, some people living in New Orleans, Louisiana have been forced to relocate due to gradual sinking of the city.
The only way to end climate migration is to mitigate climate change. If countries fulfill their obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5ºC (or at least to 2ºC) above pre-industrial levels, severe, irreversible consequences may be avoided. Unfortunately, as of December 2021, almost every country’s policy will not limit warming to 2ºC.