The first atolls submerged as a result of global warming, in 1999, were Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea in the Republic of Kiribati, situated in the Pacific Ocean. They were both uninhabited. With rising sea levels, many island states are at risk. Tuvalu, whose highest point is 13 feet (4 meters) above sea level, may be the first to see its entire population evacuated. The Maldives—highest point 11.5 feet (3.5 meters)—could be the next casualty, with nearly 800,000 people being forced to find a new home.
The majority of the world’s major cities are situated on or near the coast, including New York, Shanghai, London… The large deltas of the Nile, the Mekong and the Ganges are home to millions of people and are equally at risk. And the by-products of global warming will be more severe droughts, more frequent flooding and more lethal hurricanes. Even people living well inland may be forced to quit their homes and become environmental migrants. Climate change could lead to as many as 250 million people becoming “eco-refugees” by 2050.
Today, these refugees are not recognized as such by international agreements such as the Geneva Convention. That complicates the case for their protection, as the Tuvalu situation demonstrated only too clearly. When the government sought to obtain immigration visas for the evacuees from Tuvalu’s neighbors, New Zealand accepted, with certain conditions, but Australia refused. Yet Australia is responsible for high levels of greenhouse gas emissions and for years staunchly refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Small island states such as Tuvalu, on the other hand, produce the lowest emissions on the planet, but they are the first to suffer from the effects of climate change.
The question of the legal status of ecological refugees is intrinsically related to questions of the causes of their exile, and with whom responsibility should ultimately lie. Governments and international lawyers have been debating these issues, but thus far have failed to reach any clear conclusions.