Man who turned the heat on global warming

Dev Nadkarni

Last month the steamy world of climate change heated up a couple of degrees: Just as a group of climate scientists hit the headlines saying there was new proof that ninety five per cent of global warming was because of human activity, the instant media got busy labeling a Kiribati man trying to get his visa extended in New Zealand as the world’s first ever climate refugee.

Ioane Teitiota, who faced deportation to his native Kiribati after his bid for refugee status in New Zealand following the expiry of his visa was rejected, launched a legal appeal to stay on in the country on the grounds that going back to Kiribati would put him and his family at grave risk because of the effects of climate change. His high court appeal detailed how king tides were causing erosion, breaching seawalls and how rising sea levels were causing crops to fail, flooding homes and polluting groundwater used for drinking.

The man’s appeal expectedly made delicious copy for the global media. Teitiota was catapulted into becoming the world’s first climate change refugee, with the mainstream commentariat and all manner of social media chatterati and twitterati sharply divided on whether the instance was a harbinger of a new class of refugee or a clever stunt surfing on the rising wave of climate change. Teitiota’s New Zealand lawyer told the media that the case potentially set a global precedent for people of countries threatened by climate change to claim refugee status in other countries.

But do the perceived deleterious effects of climate change such as rising sea levels hold enough water to legally deem an entire nation’s population as being at risk of mass destruction and therefore qualifying for mass refugee status in another country?

Not as things stand today. In fact the New Zealand High Court’s original decision ruled that the immigration authority was correct to refuse Teitiota refugee status, made on the claim that returning to Kiribati would pose a grave risk to him and his family fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or direct threats to his life. This would be correct and in accordance with how a ‘refugee’ is legally defined today.

War, strife, despotism and terrorism over the decades since the formation of an organisation like the United Nations has restricted the world’s view of refugees as persons who have been singled out for persecution, physical violence and threats of death because of their political or religious persuasion, gender, physical disability, age and the institionalised or organised violation of basic human rights. A person can claim refugee status on the grounds of any of these violations. Threat to life because of climate change, however, has never figured in this list. Neither does there seem to be any concerted effort from any quarter to include it.

A question of human rights

Commenting on a global report on human rights in this column in April 2008, I had asked the question why the threat to food and water supply, shelter and livelihoods of the vast majority of the people of a country because of the cumulative, prolonged irresponsible actions of distant countries should not amount to a violation of human rights of the people of the suffering country.

To quote myself from that column: “Are human rights violations to be taken cognizance of solely through the political prism or from the rigid angle of governmental and administrative machinery of individual nations? Violation of human rights by abuse of the environment transcends political borders on both sides – the polluters and those affected by it. But that does not stop it from being a violation of human rights.”

Further in that column, I also quoted Dr Marshall Weisler, University of Queensland archaeologist and renowned expert on coral atolls. Here’s what I wrote: “Dr Weisler said rising sea levels from global warming would threaten the livelihoods and homes of more than 200,000 people who live on coral atolls in coming generations. In particular, he cited Kiribati, Tuvalu and Marshall Islands in our neck of the woods and Maldives in the Indian Ocean as being at most risk. ‘In Kiribati, where is the next generation going to live?’ he asked.”

Ioane Teitiota’s appeal last month has the ring of chickens coming home to roost.

Much talk, little action

The mega climate change jamborees held once every few years around the world have always been long on discussions but woefully short on commitments. Countries that have been identified as most at risk will tell you how hard it has been to access promised funds for mitigation and adaptation programmes. Leaders at the jamborees have nit picked about whether they should control emissions to “cap” warming by so-many-and-a-half degrees amid colourful protests from all sorts of people and groups and the hawkish gaze of carbon credit merchants – but the real issues have remained the proverbial hot potato.

For instance, the opportunity to discuss and begin forming some sort of potential consensus at the global level on what to do with climate change refugees when they become a reality – which, indeed, will be sooner rather than later as Teitiota’s case has so emphatically shown – has been completely wasted by sweeping it and other equally important issues that put hundreds of thousands of lives at stake under the carpet.

Teitiota’s case might well be seen as a clever ploy packaged in the attention arresting wrapping with death-by-climate-change written all over it, designed merely to help him stay put in New Zealand. But there is little doubt that it is the thin end of the wedge that threatens to force open the floodgates of a torrent of such claims in the not to distant future.

In fact, the other big news headline on the climate change front last month might well accelerate this process. After all, we now have it on the authority of the world’s top scientists that climate change is caused ninety five percent because of human activity. So climate change is by and large anthropogenic, they say.

This should be music to the ears of the legal fraternity. For it potentially opens whole new vistas to launch class action litigation on behalf of those threatened by climate change, particularly sea level rise, against the perpetrators – the developed western nations that, according to the scientists, have been ninety five per cent responsible for rising sea levels. What’s more, legal eagles and people threatened by sea level rise might as well fall back on Queen Elizabeth’s words at a public function in 2008 when she said that those who pollute the least suffer the most.

Ioane Teitiota may or may not go down history as the world’s first climate change refugee. But he will certainly be remembered for breaking the international community into a bit of a sweat while facing up to the rising heat of climate change.

First appeared in the November 2013 edition of Islands Business magazine