On appeal: the ′climate refugee′ issue | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 01.05.2014
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On appeal: the 'climate refugee' issue

Stopping climate change damage in the Pacific is near impossible, yet countries remain reluctant to pick up the tab, or accept climate change refugees. The case of Iaone Teitiota from Kiribati highlights the issue.

The greatest security threat to the Western Pacific is not military coups, civil war or corruption, according to the United State's top military official in the region, Admiral Samuel J Locklear III. In a recent newspaper interview he cited global warming - resulting in rising sea levels and tropical storms - as most likely to cripple the Pacific's security environment.

Statistics also back up his claim: last year more than 28 super typhoons hit the Western Pacific, up from an average of 17. In January of this year, a category five storm pounded the Pacific island nation of Tonga, resulting in one death and widespread devastation.

But while Pacific Islanders battle rising ocean levels and super storms, resulting in contaminated water sources and loss of food sources, the international community is slow to respond to what many say is inevitable and increasingly urgent: climate change migration.

The case of Ioane Teitiota, before an appeals court today in Wellington in New Zealand, is a clear illustration of the problem. Back in November, New Zealand High Court judge John Priestley said Teitiota did not fit the definiton of a refugee under international law because he was not directly persecuted. Teitiota appealed the case, as a last resort.

One man's mission

Lawyer Michael Kidd is spearheading the landmark case seeking to get New Zealand to accept Ioane Teitiota, his wife Angua Erika and their three children, from the shrinking islands of Kiribati. They had moved to New Zealand in 2007.

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'Climate refugees' talk about Kiribati

"I'm not particularly a passionate greenie," said Kidd. "I'm more coming at it from a Christian perspective because I'm a pastor also, and I believe that God ordained mankind to look after the planet and share its proceeds. Climate change, along with increasing inequality, is due to mankind's mismanagement of the planet."

Kidd's argument that climate change is an indirect form of persecution due to the carbon emissions of industrialised countries was not accepted by New Zealand High Court judge Justice Pankhurst back in November of last year. If he loses this current appeal it is likely that Teitiota and his family will be deported back to Kiribati within weeks.

But, Kidd says he will not drop the case. He contends that new international articles of law, such as the Kyoto Protocol, change international law and prior international law such as the United Nations Refugee Convention should be interpreted in its light. If necessary, he said he would pursue it through the United Nations.

Loss and damage

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw in November last year saw some progress in the development of a mechanism for loss and damage pertaining to climate change. Its purpose is to determine liability and seek financial compensation, for loss and damage to ecosystems affected by climate change, from the perpetrators.

But, its critics say that money can't fix the irreparable damage already caused by carbon emissions, for example fresh water sources polluted by sea water, or the destruction of arable land for food sources. Land that people can no longer live on has no value: instead, migration is necessary.

If international law is changed to include irreversible climate change as a reason to claim sanctuary, then there will soon be more climate change refugees in the world than refugees from war, said Kidd.

The Pacific problem

Aerial view of the island of Kiribati

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati is just three meters above sea level at its highest point

Climate change disproportionally affects the islands of the Pacific: They contribute less than 0.03 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions, but they suffer some of the greatest consequences.

New Zealand's High Court accepted the science of climate change and the expert witness of John Corcoran, who gave evidence at Teitiota's hearing that Kiribati would likely succumb to the ocean's waves within 30 years.

However, New Zealand parliamentarian Denis O'Rourke said Justice Pankhurst was right to overturn Teitiota's initial case.

"I don't think it's appropriate because I don't see these people as refugees in the classic sense," said O'Rourke. "I think they're a special category, and have to be looked at as such."

O'Rourke wants to see changes to international law first, otherwise, he says New Zealand opens itself up to a flood of refugees and will lose control of its immigration.

"It's probably not a good idea for New Zealand to take one country like Kiribati and say, ‘We'll do a special deal for you,'" he told DW. "That lets the rest of the world off the hook, and that's not appropriate."

Over the next three years, New Zealand says it will invest some 80 million New Zealand dollars (50 million euro, $69 million) into fighting the effects of climate change in the Pacific. This includes renewable energy initiatives, developing water infrastructure and building cyclone shelters. It's also committed to reducing its emissions to five per cent below 1990 levels before 2020, in line with its Kyoto Protocol commitments.

Other nations around the world have also committed their resources to the same cause. But for Ioane Teitiota, it's too little, too late. Aid money means little to him, he says.

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