The oceans which once gave the Republic of Kiribati its identity as a Pacific island nation are now threatening its existence as one. The rising tides are threatening to not only submerge the thirty-three coral atolls that form the nation, but also to destroy cultivable land, increase storm damage, and displace its residents. According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while small island nations like Kiribati emit less than 1 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, they are disproportionately affected by the resulting climate change.

Global sea levels have been rising over the last century, and they are currently rising at the rate of one-eighth of an inch per year. One cause for this is the expansion of water as it warms. Since the world’s oceans absorb 90 percent of the heat in the atmosphere generated by emissions from human activity, thermal expansion of water has led to rising sea levels. Another cause is the increase melting of ice-sheets and glaciers, which adds even more water to the oceans every day.

According to the United Nations, over 26 million people were displaced by natural disasters and climate change in 2016. That means that every second, one person was forced to flee their home. Refugee crises bring to mind images of families fleeing conflict-prone areas like Syria and Iraq. But in the 21st  century, in addition to war and persecution, climate change has been forcing people to seek refuge in other countries. For Kiribati, fighting climate change is no longer an option; the population must adapt, and adapting includes leaving.

Silence of the Law

In 2014, Ioane Teitiota of Kiribati applied in New Zealand to be the world’s first climate change refugee. His application was rejected because of the lack of legal precedent in determining the legitimacy of his claim. While much of the displacement caused by environmental issues involves internal movement, sometimes people are forced to cross borders. The current 1951 Refugee Convention applies only to those fleeing persecution based on religion, nationality, race, or affinity with any political group, not to those whose homes become uninhabitable due to climate change. None of the existing international migrant and refugee laws address their plight, even though, according to the International Red Cross, there are more environmental refugees than political refugees, with the number expected to rise to 50 million by 2050. The largest obstacle to recognizing and accepting climate refugees is the difficulty in determining if a person is fleeing his home because of a lack of work or other personal issues, or because of the ecological impacts of climate change. Because climate refugees have no international legal protection, there is no agency to protect the human rights of millions of endangered people.

It is now well-established that tackling climate change is an international responsibility, and therefore, by extension, so is the task of providing homes to climate refugees. International climate change agreements have always been contentious, as demonstrated by the international reluctance to agree to the most basic commitments of the Kyoto Protocol and the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris agreement. Moreover, assuming international responsibility for those displaced by climate change has not been met with enthusiasm as it cuts into the heart of national sovereignty. One solution being pushed with vigor is regional agreements to accept refugees. Displacement and internal instability causes regional instability, so it may be in regional powers’ interests to play a role in providing shelter and work.  

Mass Migration

Anote Tong, the former President of Kiribati, advocated for “migration with dignity.” This policy of planned migration included finding legal ways to relocate citizens and find them work in other countries. “According to the science and projections,” a dejected Tong told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “it is already too late for us.” In South Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital island, there is already widespread soil erosion and flooding caused by the sea-level rise. In 2011, Tong announced that the only real insurance against the literal and metaphorical dissolution of his country was a resettlement location. The next year, he managed to secure a piece of land in Fiji which he purchased for $8.7 million. The land could hold 60,000 to 70,000 people, although it is uncertain that the people of Kiribati would be able to sustain themselves with food grown there. The president came under massive scrutiny following reports that the land was purchased for an inflated price and was unsuitable for food production, with many calling it a publicity stunt.

None of the critics, however, can fault the reasoning behind buying a piece of land elsewhere. In low-lying Pacific islands, migration is one of the only solutions. The nation of Tuvalu is made up of only eight coral atolls and its highest point is only 4.5 meters above mean sea level. It is in such a dire position that it has entered into an agreement with New Zealand, which has agreed to accept Tuvalu’s 11,600 citizens if, or when, the rising oceans engulf it. The rising sea level affects not only small island nations, but also low-lying coastal areas of the world’s largest countries. In 1995, half of the Bhola coast of Bangladesh was submerged, leaving 500,000 people homeless. Bangladesh is predicted to lose 17 percent of its land by 2050 to flooding by rising waters, which could generate over 20 million climate refugees who currently have nowhere else to go. Even the “Floating City,” Venice, is finding itself gasping for breath. Scientists expect the Mediterranean to rise by five feet by the year 2100 and this would completely swallow Venice and much of Italy’s north Adriatic coastline.

Struggling for Survival

Growing incidents of mass migration are only one of the social and economic consequences of the rising oceans. As sea levels rise, Kiribati faces the threat of saltwater contaminating their freshwater lens—a layer of freshwater that lies below its soil. This decrease in the availability of cultivable land has led to an increase in imports of rice and in hunger. As beaches are destroyed and causeways are raised near the shores to prevent water from rising on land, people are migrating towards the cities. Overcrowding and population pressure have created public health issues and lowered sanitation standards. With such limited resources and space, close to a fourth of Kiribati’s population now lives in poverty.

The Maldives, a country located on an island archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has negotiated deals with India, Sri Lanka, and Australia to accept its people should the islands become uninhabitable. But for now, the rising seas mean that the tourism-driven nation can support fewer tourists, and the increase in freshwater from the melting of glaciers and ice-sheets is destroying the delicate ecosystem of coral reefs, which threatens its second most important industry, fishing. With the accompanying decrease in income generation capabilities, the country may face economic and social extinction before physical extinction.

Most climate refugees today are internally displaced, usually with coastal residents moving to urban centers. However, urban and rural areas require different skill sets; farming and fishing may not come in handy in an industrial town, and people are often left without jobs. The consequent increase in population pressure overburdens the health care, sanitation, and education systems. There may also be conflict with indigenous populations. Every day, around 2,000 people settle in Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Many of them seek to escape not rural poverty, but floodwaters. According to the International Organization for Migration, 70 percent of the slum-dwelling population in Dhaka had arrived due to fleeing environmental concerns. In an interview with the Guardian, Helena Akter, a displaced Bangladeshi who had to leave her submerged home, said, “Life in the village was good. We had land to cultivate and our family lived happy all year round. In Dhaka, we struggle for survival.”

Australians in solidarity with climate refugees, 2009. Photo by John Englart. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Looking Forward

“It was done strictly for the publicity,” was the criticism levelled against President Tong when he proclaimed that climate change was drowning the island. Politicians spoke out against the threat from climate change and asserted that the reefs on which the islands rest will grow and keep Kiribati’s head above water. Leaders across the world have denied that climate change is real when 97 percent of scientists believe, and all the facts indicate, otherwise. The President of the United States, too, pulled out of the Paris climate agreement and famously said, “… not the same climate change bullshit! I am tired of hearing this nonsense.” The first step needs to be establishing an international consensus that the world’s oceans are rising, and that this must be stopped. If all the ice in Greenland alone were to melt, the sea level would rise by more than six meters, and this water would submerge 80 percent of cities around the world. Furthermore, climate change affects every part of our lives, from the economic resources of a country to its political and social stability.  

The world’s least developed countries are bearing the brunt of the climate change problem despite having contributed the least to it. While accounting for just 1 percent of global emissions related to human activity, the world’s least developed countries have suffered 99 percent of the deaths from climate related disasters. Unless developed countries agree to share their burden and reduce their carbon footprint, they will continue to endure the hardships caused by climate change with little to no recourse.

Most importantly, climate refugees need to be recognized as such. Because they are not protected by international laws and have no legal status as refugees, they face great political risks. It was hoped that the Paris agreement would include a legal recognition of climate-induced migration and international efforts to tackle the issue, but Paris proved to be a let-down. As the rising tide threatens to leave millions homeless, the response must include a recognition of their human rights on land which is still above water.