Should international law recognize 'climate change refugees'?


When the rain stops falling to water your crops, or tides rise so high the sea fills your basement, it may be time to move on. A New Zealand court may be about to decide whether climate change can make a person ... a refugee.

The Hungry Tide is a documentary about the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati where water is now where houses used to be. Rising ocean levels have also helped contaminate drinking water, killed crops and -- for some residents -- made Kiribati a better place to leave than live.* See photos below

That's why one Kiribati man is asking a New Zealand court to declare him the world's first "climate change refugee" Iaone Teitiota emigrated to New Zealand and has applied for environmental asylum.

Michael Kidd is Mr Teitiota's lawyer in New Zealand. He says Kiribati is no longer a safe place for his client to live. Mr. Teitiota isn't the kind of refugee the United Nations had in mind when it drafted the refugee convention. Still, Michael Kidd says he has a case -- and there may be many more cases to come.

The New Zealand High Court has reserved its decision on Mr. Teitiota's case.

"We've often described ourselves as the frontline country to the problem of climate change, because we will be the first ones to fall. If nothing is done, we will no longer exist."

Anote Tong, President of Kiribati in an interview with the nonprofit group Conservation International.
We did invite him to speak to us, but he declined.

Like Anote Tong, Maria Tiimon Chi-Fang is deeply concerned about the fate of her home country. She's from Kiribati, but now lives in Sydney, Australia where she works as an outreach officer for the Pacific Calling Partnership ... a group trying to raise awareness about climate change in the Pacific.

Robert McLeman believes climate change will soon have significant effects on populations around the world. He's an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo and author of the forthcoming book Climate and Human Migration. Robert McLeman was in Waterloo, Ontario.

What do you think? Should international law recognize climate change refugees?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch and Vanessa Greco

* All photos below of Kiribati are credited to Reuters/David Gray *


Kaibakia Pinata holds the fish he caught in his nets off Bikeman islet. Among the most substantial impacts of climate change would be losses of coastal infrastructure and land resulting from inundation, storm surge, and shoreline erosion.


Kiribati experiences higher tides and more frequent storms, which bring salt-water intrusion and coastal flooding. They experience long periods of drought, an endangered supply of fresh water, and bleaching of the coral reefs that cradle the island.


A girl sits on a log next to the roots of a tree, which have been exposed as a result of high-tides, near the village of Teaoraereke. The atolls of Kiribati are experiencing increased wave heights and frequency and is placing increased pressure on the shoreline and seawalls.

climate-refugee-insert4-house.jpgAn abandoned house that is affected by seawater during high-tides stands next to a small lagoon near the village of Tangintebu. Kiribati has more than 100,000 citizens and the extensive coastal erosion is displacing people from the traditional house plots they have occupied since the early 1900s. Many of the country's islands are so narrow that there really is no place to go.


Newly made sandbags sit on a wall on a causeway that connects the town of Bairiki and Betio on South Tarawa. With surrounding sea levels rising, Kiribati President Anote Tong has predicted his country will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years because of inundation and contamination of its freshwater supplies.

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