For many island nations, climate change is the biggest threat: the ocean has begun to swallow up peoples’ homes. Because of this, island nations in the Pacific have made considerable strides to combat rising sea levels and have been at the forefront of international climate change negotiations, all while accounting for nearly zero percent of the global emissions. Though these countries are striving to make their islands livable into the future, their efforts may not be enough. Land continues to disappear in nations like the Solomon Islands, devastating the ecosystems and the livelihood of its people. Increasingly, weather patterns caused by climate change are forcing citizens of island nations to flee their communities, becoming some of the first of an estimated 250 million people likely to be displaced by 2050.
The 1951 UN Refugee Convention did not anticipate “climate refugees.” To qualify for asylum, refugees must be unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin because of a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Therefore, member countries may legally deny asylum claims founded in climate change. New Zealand, for example, has previously denied asylum to Kiribati nationals claiming that their sinking island home is unlivable.
In 2016, the Paris Agreement on climate change took effect to promote and incentivize the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions (GGE). Under the agreement, ratifying countries agreed to support the needs of developing countries, many of whom are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. As of July 2018, 179 countries have ratified the Agreement, which provides financial resources to assist developing nations to mitigate GGE and adapt to the effects of climate change. Yet, despite huge disparities between nations and their share of global emissions, responsibility remains equally shared. Despite the fact that developed nations have historically been responsible for seventy-nine percent of carbon emissions, there has been no mention of liability or specific compensation to disproportionately affected parties like island nations.
However, some countries have adopted limited resettlement programs. For example, New Zealand has a yearly “Pacific Access Category” lottery for seventy-five migrants each from Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tonga, and Fiji, and the U.S.’s I-9 work permit allows indefinite employment eligibility for citizens of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, and Palau. Yet such programs are not scaled to accept larger magnitudes of people. These programs also ignore the sad reality that many people do not want to leave their homes. However, as coral reefs degrade and islands continue to sink deeper, these same people become increasingly more vulnerable as the ocean sweeps away homes and food supplies.
As sea levels rise and storms become more powerful, climate change has already become a “matter of life or death” to all. Some nations like the Seychelles have taken matters into their own hands as formal climate negotiations have proved slow and cumbersome. With the implementation of a debt buyback program, Seychelles began working on a climate change adaptation program. However, such projects and other infrastructure fortification programs like the Green Climate Fund’s project in the Maldives continue to disregard the imminent future of their nationals.
But the bigger question is: why must island nations bear the burden of responsibility when other countries are the main contributors to climate change? The Trump Administration’s threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, implementation of stricter immigration policies, and continued denial of human-caused climate change all indicate that any action from the U.S. is extremely unlikely. Although the U.S. will be unable to leave the Agreement until 2020 at the earliest and is thereby still obligated to mitigate its impact on GGE, the continued lack of provisions protecting climate refugees make it difficult to hold polluters accountable.
The international community cannot continue to postpone the issue of climate refugees. If polluter countries do not want to be accountable for such refugees, they must take drastic measures. Some countries have taken charge while others continue to ignore its duties. For example, France recently passed a law that requires large companies to publish annual reports linking its supply chain’s activities to environmental impact and allows civil society to sue companies. Whereas, in the U.S., companies cannot be sued for GGE under federal law as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still the authority to enforce the Clean Air Act under American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, the current administration has continued to ignore its duties as inspector.
Perhaps the best solution is to hold these companies accountable since private companies such as fossil fuel entities are the most responsible for the GGE of each polluter country. It may be time to allow the public and other concerned parties to bring their issues to court. The main polluters should be held accountable and—more importantly—liable. It is no longer a question of if. We must ask ourselves: when the islands disappear, where will the people go?