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Ioane Teitiota was not seeking fame when he moved to New Zealand, but he is now getting it. He is the first person, so far as is known, to request asylum in a common-law country on the basis of being a climate change refugee.

A native of Kiribati – a small island state in the South Pacific – Mr. Teitiota went to New Zealand several years ago as a legal guest worker, but he stayed on and his visa expired. He has now asked the New Zealand government to refrain from sending him and his family back to Kiribati, saying sea level rise is making his home island uninhabitable. A lower court has accepted as fact his evidence that high tides repeatedly breach the seawalls protecting his community, and that rising seas are killing crops, contaminating drinking water, and flooding homes. The lower court nonetheless rejected Mr. Teitiota's asylum application, finding that these reasons do not constitute grounds for protection under international law. He has appealed that decision to a higher court; the verdict is pending.

It may be that his asylum claim is simply a last-ditch attempt to avoid deportation, but it has brought considerable attention to a previously abstract concept. Studies have projected that hundreds of millions of people will be displaced this century by the impacts of climate change. At the United Nations, the Security Council has debated the subject, and decided it is best managed through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Least developed countries have been encouraged to consider the migration implications of climate change in their National Adaptation Plans, and at their 2010 Cancun meeting, UNFCCC delegates stated that migration and displacement ought to be planned for in the context of adaptation. But until Mr. Teitiota came along, no individual actually stepped forward to request international protection from the impacts of climate change.

If the New Zealand court finds him to be a refugee, expect others to make similar claims, there and elsewhere. The court will likely not do so. The internationally accepted definition of a refugee was established in a 1951 UN convention. To qualify for protection, a refugee must have a legitimate fear of persecution in his or her home country. The environment does not persecute, nor do sea levels. And so, unless humanitarian or compassionate grounds particular to his circumstances are invoked, he and his family will likely be required to return home. But even if Mr. Teitiota goes away, the question of what to do about people displaced by rising sea levels will not.

The science is increasingly conclusive that human-induced climate change is causing sea levels to rise. Not by much; at present only a couple millimeters per year on average, but for atoll nations like Kiribati where the land is no more than a meter or two above the sea, even that rate of change is problematic. An atoll is a low-lying, ring-shaped island built of coral that sits upon an extinct, undersea volcano. Atolls are common in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The most populous atoll nation is the Maldives, with 340,000 people; Kiribati has a population of 100,000. Despite sea level rise, not all atolls are shrinking in area. Each atoll has its own particular underlying geology. Some are being pushed upward by tectonic activity beneath them; others are subsiding. The ones that are subsiding are at greatest risk, since sea level rise accelerates their gradual disappearance beneath the waves.

A few small islands are already in trouble, like the Carteret Islands, from which people are being relocated. The Carterets are governed by Papua New Guinea, which has plenty of land that is not in danger of being lost to rising seas. This is not the case for states like Kiribati or the Maldives; they have no high ground to which people can relocate. Seeing that the rest of the world shows little interest in curbing its greenhouse gas emissions, the government of Kiribati appears to have resigned itself to its fate. It is encouraging its citizens to migrate elsewhere, and has begun purchasing land in Fiji to provide a possible destination. The government of the Maldives is looking at building artificial islands as possible refuges.

Should the international community help by expanding the definition of a refugee so that people displaced by the impacts of climate change qualify for UN protection? This is not a good idea, and probably would not get far with policymakers. The existing refugee definition is clear and well-established. Approximately ten million people worldwide presently meet the existing definition – people like those fleeing the conflict in Syria – and the international community does a poor job helping them. There is no point in officially labeling more people as refugees if we cannot help the refugees we already have.

The number of people worldwide who might benefit from being designated 'refugees' because of sea level rise is not large – perhaps several hundred thousand over the next fifty years. This is because only a small number of states consist exclusively of low-lying islands. Refugee protection extends only to those who flee their home country. Tens of millions of people worldwide live in coastal areas exposed to sea level rise, but most of are citizens of continental states or non-atoll island states, meaning they would not need to resettle in another country.

Another problem is definition and causality. Sea level rise is relatively straightforward to track, but other potential impacts of climate change are less obvious. For example, the intensity of tropical cyclones is expected to increase in coming decades. Cyclones occur naturally; human-induced climate change exacerbates them. So, does the international community want to offer guaranteed assistance to all people displaced by cyclones (something we do not do now), or only in those instances where evidence shows climate change has aggravated the harm caused? Or what if the cyclone is determined to be 'natural' but sea level rise enabled its storm surge to penetrate farther inland than it otherwise would have? Further, would we really want to guarantee protection to those who flee the storm but not to those left behind and may be in a worse predicament? What a messy can of worms we would open.

There will inevitably be people who experience harm as result of our refusal to control greenhouse gas emissions now. In cases like Kiribati, where the number of people to be harmed is relatively small, Canada and the international community can (and probably will) offer assistance on an ad hoc basis. This is not ideal from the perspective of those whose lives will be affected, but it is how we have done things in the past. Canada, for example, took ad hoc measures to facilitate the migration of people following earthquakes in Italy (1976) and Haiti (2010). Each year, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US collectively accept roughly 2.5 million legal permanent resident immigrants. With minor regulatory changes to their existing migration programs, these countries could easily resettle everyone displaced from small island states, obviating any need for tinkering with international refugee law.

The big challenge – the one we must start planning for now, and for which there is no simple solution – will come when coastal urban centres begin experiencing more severe tropical storms, made worse by rising sea levels. Remember the damage and harm caused by "superstorm" Sandy and hurricane Katrina? The scientific evidence points to there being more such events in the future, not less. The Chinese economic powerhouse of Shanghai, and its tens of millions of residents, sits in a sinking river delta only a few meters above rising seas, exposed to typhoons. Similar risks exist in densely populated river deltas across Asia. The costs of coastal defences, managed retreats, and population relocations will be astronomical, and cause severe damage to the global economy. Fortunately, there is still time to plan and prepare for such contingencies through the UNFCCC process and, better yet, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid those situations altogether. But our planning will need to be done at a faster rate than has been the case until now. Mr. Teitiota can be thanked for prodding us in this direction.

Robert McLeman is associate professor of Geography at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, a former diplomat, and author of the forthcoming book Climate and Human Migration, published by Cambridge University Press.

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