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Kiribati: What makes a 'climate refugee'?

  • 24 January 2020


The Pacific island of Kiribati is doomed to disappear. Its people are fated to become a generation of climate change refugees. The direction jurisprudence on this will take is not merely of academic interest.

The term 'climate change refugees' is coming into vogue and even Australia, whose politicians resist accepting its gloomy and turbulent realities, risks producing its very own. In the words of climatologist Michael Mann, 'It is conceivable that much of Australia simply becomes too hot and dry for human habitation. In that case, yes, unfortunately we could see Australians join the ranks of the world's climate change refugees.'

At the legal level, the debate about culpability for climate change inaction has found form in some 1300 legal actions across 28 countries, the vast majority of them being lodged in that land of litigation, the United States. As Joana Setzer of the Grantham Institute and the London School of Economics pointed out last year, 'Holding governments and businesses to account for failing to combat climate change has become a global phenomenon.'

In the legal field, the idea of expanding the categories of refugees that arise from climactic disaster is as bold as any, and has generated its share of supporters and sceptics. A remarkable effort to do so came in the New Zealand case of Teitiota v Chief Executive Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (2014), the first recorded instance of climate change being cited as a basis for refugee status, though the man in question, Ioane Teitiota, failed to convince the courts.

New Zealand's various judicial channels found against the Kiribati national, claiming that he did not satisfy the definition of refugee within the conventional understanding of international law. This was a different sort of threat to his livelihood, rooted neither in political oppression nor in tyrannical cruelty.

At stages of the appeal process, however, there was acceptance on the part of various judicial officers that climate change was a serious matter affecting Kiribati. The Immigration and Protection Tribunal, for instance, acknowledged 'that the limited capacity of South Tarawa to carry its population is significantly compromised by the effects of population growth, urbanisation, and limited infrastructure development, particularly in relation to sanitation'. These effects had been 'exacerbated by the effects of both sudden onset environmental events (storms) and slow-onset processes (sea-level rise)'.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court found that, in being returned to Kiribati, the applicant did not face the prospect of 'serious harm' and