Climate Change – Still a Concern to Address Passively? Not So for Climate Refugees

Climate Change – Still a Concern to Address Passively? Not So for Climate Refugees

By Joo Hee Park

Several reports have shown polar bears ending up in towns in Russia seeking food. In June 2019, Officials in Norilsk have alerted its residents of a polar bear that appeared in the city center, digging through trash and lying down on the ground.[1] Just a few months back, local reports located over 50 polar bears in Novaya Zemlya, scavenging through garbage dumps and wandering around the island.[2] The cause of this massive “polar bear invasion” is predicted to be the changing conditions in the Arctic, warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and ice thinning rapidly.[3] However, climate change is not the only threat to wildlife habitat but also a threat to the habitat of the people.

The Groundswell report by the world bank estimates as many as 216 million people to become internal climate migrants,[4] and the study by Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University that “as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration, and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding” have been cited in publications from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change and the Economics of Climate Change.[5] One major scenario that results in climate change-induced immigration is in low-lying islands. In between 1998 and 1999, two islands under the jurisdiction of Kiribati disappeared underwater, and such threat is still ongoing for currently submerging islands such as Tuvalu and Maldives, very likely to be fully uninhabitable in the coming years.[6]

So what does “climate refugee” really mean? Unfortunately, though many may be relatively familiar with it through media, the term “climate refugee” does not formally exist under international law. Article 1 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (“Refugee Convention” defines “refugee” as someone who is displaced for “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”[7] However, on most occasions, climate refugees are not referred as “refugees.” Courts have considered whether the principle of non-refoulment under refugee law and human rights law extends to those whose living conditions and environment would be severely impacted due to the effects of climate change.[8] However, all claims have failed because “the harm feared did not amount to persecution under refugee law; there was no differential impact on the individual concerned, or the evidence did not yet substantiate the claim.”[9]

A notable case is Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, in which Ioane Teitiota, a native of the island nation of Kiribati, sought asylum in New Zealand on the grounds that their home country has become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels and associated environmental degradation.[10] The Refugee and Protection Officer declined Teitiota’s refugee application.[11] The tribunal acknowledged Teitiota’s concerns resulting from climate change and disasters.[12] Nonetheless, the Supreme Court of New Zealand affirmed lower Court decisions that in relation to the Refugee Convention, Teitiota does not face “serious harm” and that there is no evidence that the Kiribati government is failing to take steps to protect its citizens.[13]

One of the reasons why climate refugees do not fall under the definition of “refugee” the Refugee Convention is that majority of those affected by climate change move predominantly internally and/or gradually, rather than in the nature of fleeing from danger or as being outside of their country of origin.[14] Such lack of imminent, serious harm limits their protection as refugees. Moreover, the cause of displacement is often viewed as multicausal, where climate change is not per se reason for people leaving their homeland but rather a factor that amplifies preexisting risks such as subsiding islands which is a result of natural processes.[15] Lack of political appetite is another reason for countries to be hesitant to renegotiate the scope of the term “refugee.”[16]

Studies have argued that the world needs to recognize such ecological debt.[17] The critical concern of the issue regarding climate refugees is that underdeveloped countries that are least to blame take on most burden. These countries lack the system to fully protect the citizens especially, at times of natural disasters caused by climate change and damages will grow exponentially if no action is taken. Countries should no longer respond passively for the reasons of their economic or industrial interests. It is recommended that nations mutually cooperate to establish international regulations that resolve the ongoing issue.

[1] Lindsey Bever, A Starving Polar Bear Wandered into a Russian City, Scavenging for Food, Wash. Post (Jun. 19, 2019),

[2] Isaac Stanley-Becker, A ‘Mass Invasion’ of Polar Bears is Terrorizing an Island Town. Climate Change is to Blame, Wash. Post (Feb. 11, 2019),

[3] Id.

[4] Viviane Clement et al., Groundswell Part 2: Acting on Internal Climate Migration 80 (The World Bank 2021).

[5] Oli Brown, Migration and Climate Change 11 (Int’l Org. for Migration 2008).

[6] Enoit Mayer, The International Legal Challenges of Climate-Induced Migration: Proposal for an International Legal Framework, 22 Colo. J. Int’l Env’t L & Pol’y 357, 363 (2011); Current and Future Climate of Tuvalu 4 (Pac. Climate Change Sci. Program 2011) (“Satellite data indicate the sea level has risen near Tuvalu by about 5 mm per year since 1993”).

[7] Convention relating to the Status of Refugees art.1, Apr. 22, 1954, 189 U.N.T.S. 137.

[8] Jane McAdam, Protecting People Displaced by the Impacts of Climate Change: The UN Human Rights Committee and the Principle of Non-Refoulement, 114 Am. J. Int’l L. 708, 708 (2020).

[9] Id.

[10] Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment [2015] NZSC 107 at [1] (N.Z.).

[11] Id. at [2].

[12] Id. at [13].

[13] Id. at [12].

[14] Jane McAdam, Swimming Against the Tide: Why a Cliamate Change Displacement Treaty is Not the Answer, 23 Int’l J. Refugee L. 2, 8 (2011).

[15] Id. at 15.

[16] Id. at 16.

[17] Molly Conisbee and Andrew Simms, Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition 33 (New Econ. Found. 2003) (“The people of poor “under-consuming” countries are creditors to the international community yet still suffer the burden of rich countries’ carbon debts.”).