Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, in the Republic of Kiribati were the first atolls flooded by global warming. They were in the Pacific Ocean and disappeared beneath the water in 1999. But they were uninhabited. As sea levels are predictably going to rise, most insular states will be threatened: Tuvalu (its highest point is 4 metres high) has experienced its first waves of population displacement. Papua New Guinea was first to organize part of its population’s collective displacement: the 2 600 inhabitants of the Carteret Islands.
But they are not the only ones under threat. Most of the world’s biggest cities are by the sea: New York, Shanghai, London… The big deltas in the Nile, the Mekong River and the Ganges used by millions of people are especially vulnerable. In fact, a large part of the world’s population lives by the sea. Most of them will have to move: they will become environmental migrants, “eco-refugees”.
Global warming will cause harsher droughts, increasingly frequent flooding and more dangerous storms. Even people who live far from coasts will have to leave their homes. Global warming could cause a total of 250 million refugees.
Today, these refugees are not recognized by any international convention like the Geneva Convention. This makes it difficult to protect and care for them. Tuvalu is symbolic. To prepare for the exodus, the government requested emigration visas for their citizens from neighbouring countries. New Zealand accepted under certain conditions, but not Australia. This is especially unfair as small insular states emit very few greenhouse gases compared to Australia which is a big emitter.
The issue of environmental refugees’ status is linked to responsibility. This is the subject being debated by international law specialists, to no avail for the moment.