Though the ocean is slowly swallowing his home island nation, 37-year-old Ioane Teitota cannot be deemed a ‘climate change refugee’ and cannot seek permanent asylum in New Zealand, according to a Tuesday court ruling.
Teitota and his wife are currently living in New Zealand, having left Kiribati — a low-lying Pacific Island nation near the equator — in 2007. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, released in September, predicted that ocean levels will rise by as much as three feet by the end of the century due to climate change, meaning the island is slated to mostly disappear by 2100.
Concerned with the visible effects of a rising ocean, Teiota and his wife left the country in 2007. They obtained New Zealand work visas, which eventually expired. The couple continued to live in the country illegally, and had three children, all born in New Zealand.
Despite being born in the country, New Zealand law does not afford citizenship to Teiota’s children. So, he petitioned the courts for asylum, claiming he was a legal refugee that had been subject to persecution through a climate change-induced forced exodus.
But New Zealand’s High Court refused the petition, saying among other things that a refugee is someone that is persecuted, which requires human interaction. Though the term “persecution” is not defined in the international Refugee Convention, it “well founded fears to life or freedom on a convention ground, some form of serious harm, or serious violations of civil or human rights,” the court ruled.
“The legal concept of ‘being persecuted’ rests on human agency,” the ruling said.
But one of Teiota’s core arguments for refugee status was that humans cause exorbitant carbon emissions, which are responsible for rising sea levels and changes of weather patterns. Therefore, climate change constitutes an indirect but worldwide ‘human agency.’ An additional indirect human agency was overpopulation, Teiota argued, another problem plaguing Kiribati.
The court called the argument “novel” and “optimistic,” but ultimately ruled that they were unconvincing. If it were adopted, the court said, then millions of people experiencing the effects of climate change could seek refuge in New Zealand or any other county. “It is not for the High Court of New Zealand to alter the scope of the Refugee Convention in that regard,” the court said.
“There is no evidence establishing that the environmental conditions that he faced or is likely to face on return are so parlous that his life will be placed in jeopardy, or that he and his family will not be able to resume their prior subsistence life with dignity,” the ruling said. “While [Teiota’s] standard of living will be less than that which he would enjoy in New Zealand that, in itself, does not amount to serious harm for the purposes of the Refugee Convention.”
The high court did, however, note that refugee status for people affected by climate change was not a done deal. Specifically, the court said the ‘human agency’ requirement does not necessarily mean that climate change can never create a pathway into the Refugee Convention. Additionally, in future cases, a person petitioning for refugee on the basis of climate change could do so for a reason other than fear of persecution.
“Natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, severe weather events, and tsunamis can turn people into refugees. So too can warfare,” the court said. “And arguably, so too might climate change.”
Aware of the imminent effects of climate change on his people, Kiribati’s president Anote Tong has suggested a mass relocation to Fiji, or even construction of floating island-type accommodation. The Kiribati government has already paid a deposit for 6,000 acres in Fiji for crop growing to provide food security.