The Economic & Humanitarian Catastrophe Threatening Pacific Island Communities

Credit: The Pacific Community – Sustainable Pacific Development Through Science, Knowledge & Innovation

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 9 2019 – When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addressed the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) last month, he pointed out the dramatic impact of climate change triggering natural disasters around the world— from glaciers that melt, ice caps that disappear and corals that bleach.

But more and more, he said, the devastating impacts are on the life of the people and in the health of people around the world.

According to the results of a report published in Nature Communications, sea-level is rising much faster than what was expected and forecasted in the past.

“If we are not able to defeat climate change”, Guterres warned “we will have in 2050 an impact of the sea-level rise on over 300 million people”.

Of these 300 million people, 70% are in countries in the Asia-Pacific region where coastal cities could be “wiped out” if there aren’t enough sea defences in place.

The most vulnerable include the Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs), plus eight Asian countries: Bangladesh, China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan, according to the report.

Dr Benjamin Straus, president and CEO of Climate Central, who along with Scott Kulp, co-authored the report, was quoted by Cable News Network (CNN) as saying: “The results indicate that, yes, a great deal more people are on vulnerable land than we thought.”

And they need to take immediate action to avoid the impending “economic and humanitarian catastrophe.”

As the sea-level continues to rise, the world’s low-lying countries, mostly in the Pacific, will be the worst affected by the climate crisis, which is not of their own creation.

At the ongoing COP25 climate change conference in Madrid, which is expected to conclude December 13, the future of the “Blue Planet, where water covers around 75 percent of the earth’s surface, will be a major part of the discussion.

In an interview with IPS, Andrew Jones, Director, Geoscience, Energy and Maritime Division at the Pacific Community (SPC), a principal scientific and technical organization in the Pacific region, provided a worst-case scenario for Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs).

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: The countries singled out as the most vulnerable to climate change are the 57 small island developing states (SIDS)—some of whom like the Maldives, Tuvalu and Kiribati, may be wiped off the face of the earth due to sea level rise and natural disasters. Do you think the international community is adequately responding to these dangers with concrete actions on climate resilience and funding for adaptation?

JONES: An important point in there is that the countries most vulnerable to climate change are the atoll nations, of which there are four: Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

These countries are mere meters above sea level and have no higher ground to which they can retreat (unlike other countries which have populated atoll islands but also volcanic islands, or which are territories of another country).

Another important point is that these countries will become uninhabitable long before they are “wiped off the face of the earth” by sea level rise and disasters.

The picture of seas rising like a bathtub, so that we can wait until the high ground goes under, is too simplistic (and dangerous thinking).

Even relatively small increases in sea level will lead to more wave flooding (raising up the ‘base level’ of the natural wave variation in the Pacific) and this wave flooding will poison fresh water supplies and crops.

Safeguarding the World’s Largest Tuna Fishery. Credit: Siosifa Fukofuka (SPC)

IPS: Is the UN’s Decade for Ocean Sciences for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) a step in the right direction?

JONES: The UN Decade is definitely a step in the right direction, because the more detailed, rigorous scientific data that we have, the more certainty we will have in forward models, and the better we will be able to inform mitigation and adaptation decision making.”

However not enough is being done to respond to the climate change crisis facing our Pacific Island Nations (the Leaders used the term ‘crisis’ at the last Forum Meeting).

Ambitious adaptation actions are needed within PICTs to prevent them from becoming uninhabitable. For example, countries like the Marshall Islands may look to build higher islands.

However, the future of the Pacific depends on the international focus remaining on mitigation; the international community must commit to progressing the Paris Agreement.

In this context, the UN Decade for Ocean Science is also not enough. PICTs cannot wait ten years to build a better database before commencing ambitious adaptation measures.

A large factor is that we currently have a window in which the Pacific needs to focus on adaptation while the international community needs to focus on mitigation. If in the future the international focus shifts, then much less adaptation funding will be available for the Pacific.

IPS: What are the specific threats facing PICTs?

JONES: The Pacific is heavily reliant on the ocean as a source of protein, but the changing climate is impacting fisheries and opening new debates on what is considered international waters- and what is not.

Firstly, what is considered international waters – Pacific’s position on this is very clear – the sovereignty of their nations is not in question regardless of geographic changes that may occur due to changing climate.

Pacific Leaders have stated that once maritime boundaries are de-limited they cannot be challenged or reduced as a result of sea-level rise and climate change. The Pacific has stated that anything which is currently sovereign waters will remain that way and will not become international waters in the future.

However, the international legal instrument through which these maritime boundaries are defined (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) is not clear on this point.

Therefore, SPC is undertaking a regional technical study to understand which ‘base points’ (the points of land from which the maritime boundaries are defined) are vulnerable to change through sea level rise.

At the same time, the Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC) is looking at international legal instruments to understand which avenues will be open to PICTs to ensure they retain their sovereign rights into the future.

IPS: What’s the future of coastal fisheries? How will they be impacted by climate change?

JONES: In terms of fisheries, it’s probably worth noting that the coastal fisheries which are a primary source of protein for PICTs may be impacted by climate change but these are separate from any debate over international waters.

Oceanic fisheries are the transboundary resource most likely to be affected by any climate change in this context, and while they are a source of protein they are also cornerstone of Pacific export economies.

The latest scientific modelling suggests that the geographic distribution of tuna populations may change in the future, which may result in decreasing tuna stocks in the exclusive economic zones of some countries and may also result in an increase in the relative proportion of the tuna resource within international waters (as defined by current maritime boundaries).

This could have significant implications for the narrow and fragile economies of some PICTs, and therefore all aspects of development, although FFA are working with PICTs to reassess how they distribute rights to the tuna resource under future climate scenarios.

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Climate Refugees Refused UN Protection & Denied Rights Under International Law

Credit: UNHCR

By Miles Young
MADRID, Spain, Dec 9 2019 – The term “environmental refugee” has gained prominence in recent years as climate change and desertification have threatened the livelihoods of millions of people, causing many to re-locate.

Despite the growing use of the term, there is no universally accepted definition for “environmental refugee”.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) uses the term to describe people forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardizes their existence and / or seriously effects their quality of life”.

A problem for those who fall within the UNEP definition is that it does not bring them within the definition of a “refugee” as articulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and therefore does not qualify them for the rights and protections that a refugee has under international law.

A case in point is Mr Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati who in 2013 applied for asylum in New Zealand on the basis that he was a climate refugee. The High Court of New Zealand rejected this argument and relied on the definition of “refugee” as set out in the Refugee Convention in its judgment.

There have been at least 10 other cases where people have tried to claim refugee status in New Zealand, based on climate change, with all failing.

The Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “Any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

Those who come within this definition are afforded certain rights under international law, such as the right to safe asylum, the same rights and basic help as any other foreigner who is a legal resident in the country, including freedom of thought, of movement, and freedom from torture and degrading treatment, as well as economic and social rights like the right to access to medical care and schooling and the right to work.

At this time, there has been no compelling case made for the international community to accept that persons forced to leave their countries because of environmental reasons fall within the Convention’s definition of a refugee.

Credit: UNHCR

Under the current legal framework, those forced to leave their countries because of climate change would only be able to legally enter and settle in another country if they satisfy immigration laws which are often themselves narrow and restrictive.

Given the status quo, it is very much within the legal rights of countries to turn away environmental refugees at the border, or deport them (as in the case of Mr Teitiota) or confine them in camps within their jurisdictions, with extremely limited legal rights.

Thankfully, there is an appreciation amongst Pacific Island Countries that climate change is a common threat which must be addressed collectively. In 2017, for example, Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama announced that he would allow the populations of Kiribati and Tuvalu to settle in his country, should they be forced to re-locate due to climate change.

Because of this lack of legal protection for climate refugees, former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga prepared a draft United Nations General Assembly resolution on developing a legal regime to protect people displaced by climate change.

However, this initiative appears to have stalled after Mr Sopoaga losing the prime ministership in September 2019. Further, the discussion around climate change in the Pacific has shifted away from re-location and refugee status and focused more on adaption.

This reflects the desire of Pacific peoples to avoid association with refugee status – which is linked to images of homeless, stateless people forced give up their land, and eventually culture – and to remain in their countries.

In Kiribati, for example, the current government has pushed back on the concept of “migration with dignity” which an earlier government had promoted.

Nonetheless, given the alarming increases in sea levels, displacement is a real possibility for Pacific Island Countries and remains at the forefront of many working in the climate change space, even if the term “climate refugee” has lost favour in public discourse.

The New Zealand Government, for example, has supporting Pacific Islands Countries to avert and delay climate-related displacement as its immediate aims, and the absorption of their peoples as a medium to longer term aim, including through a climate change humanitarian visa scheme.

The prospect of a nation of people having to move to another country raises complex questions around self-determination, governance and statehood, including their ongoing rights with respect to the ownership and exploitation of resources within the maritime boundaries of their physically abandoned country.

Culture and identity are at risk if people with intimate ties to their lands move to another area or country. And there is always the possibility of violence when communities are moved on a large scale into already crowded areas or areas with different cultures.