Acclimating to climate change: filling the international policy void for environmentally displaced people.

Author:Chirala, Sireesha V.
  1. INTRODUCTION II. BACKGROUND A. What is Climate Change? B. Slow-Onset vs. Sudden Impact Disasters C. Visible Effects of Climate Change III. THE INADEQUACIES OF CURRENT LAWS A. Migration Categories B. International Laws IV. WHAT SHOULD THE SOLUTION FEATURE? A. Internationally Agreed Definition--EDPs B. The Non-Refoulement Principle C. The Responsibilities of States V. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

    Even though the news programs say the worst is over, "your brain tells you that if this one happened, then other[s] will happen." (1) First there was the thunderous shake of the earthquake that lasted longer than usual and that shook everything into rubble. Then the main tsunami hit, submerging everything in sight. After that, "eight successive 'waves' came [o]nto the shore," each wave rushing in uncontrollable fear and "pull[ing] back with it more lives, buildings and hope." (2) Seeing, hearing, and smelling the destruction and decay all around, and feeling that another tremor will come at any time "mak[es] the loss worse." (3) Knowing the waves come from an aftershock of the earthquake creates the overwhelming "feeling that ... [any] tremor will simply get stronger, longer, and create ... another tsunami." (4) Will the water ever subside? How can we ever rebuild our homes, streets, and lives? Does the rest of the world even know our plight?

    Weather-related natural disasters displace millions of people each year. (5) The number of people forced out of their homes will only escalate as climate change exacerbates global, environmental displacement. (6) Between 200 million and one billion people could be forced to leave their homes as a result of global warming within the next fifty years. (7) Initially the movement of environmentally displaced people has been temporary and has remained within the borders of their home country. (8) However, if an entire nation is threatened with the prospect of environmental destruction, displaced persons will have no choice but to seek permanent refuge elsewhere. (9) Therefore, it is imperative to account for the rights of the people who will lose their homes to impending environmental changes and destruction. (10)

    Unfortunately, existing laws fail to address the issues that environmentally displaced people face. u Currently, "It]here is no agreed upon category or terminology to describe persons compelled to move because of climate or environmental change." (12) Many scholars have termed these migrants "environmental refugees" in an effort to emphasize the "involuntary nature of environmentally displaced persons' migration and the [complete] lack of resources available to ease their plight." (13) However, this is a misuse of the term "refugee." (14) Not only is refugee law ill-equipped to protect the interests of these displaced people, but other migratory frameworks and international laws do not completely cover those who are left without a home because of changes in environmental conditions. (15) Consequently, a new international framework is needed to repair the inadequacies of current laws and properly account for these migrants and their rights. (16)

    This Comment discusses climate change, the problems it presents for international migration, and the need for a stronger international framework for dealing with environmentally displaced people. Part II outlines the developing environmental problems associated with climate change. Part III then discusses international law as it currently stands and illustrates its weaknesses and strengths in addressing the needs of environmentally displaced migrants. Finally, Part IV of the Comment concludes by proposing a new international agreement that pieces together features of current laws to accommodate the expected influx of forced migrants. (17)


    1. What is Climate Change?

      Climate change refers to the long-term shift in weather statistics, such as the average temperature and precipitation levels, that occur in a given place and time of year. (18) Scholars attribute climate change to two main causes, natural variability and human activity. (19) Natural variability trends are based on scientific observations of previous large-scale climate changes in the Earth's past. (20) Examples of natural variability include: interactions between the atmosphere, oceans, and land, as well as alterations in the amounts of solar radiation that reaches Earth. (21) On the other hand, human-induced climate change occurs through burning fossil fuels (like coal, oil, and natural gas). (22) This activity sparks the creation of harmful amounts of naturally occurring gases like carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases. (23) These gases trap heat and create the greenhouse effect, contributing to the rise in global temperatures. (24) Human activity is thought to carry the most responsibility for current climatic conditions. (25)

      Despite the disagreement among scholars regarding specific and primary sources of climate change, (26) there is shared certainty and recognition of the already-occurring and future impacts of climate change on the world. (27) These include the negative effects that changes in the Earth's climate will have on sea levels, droughts, local weather, ecosystems, heating and cooling requirements, human health, agriculture, and natural disasters such as hurricanes. (28) The shrinking and thawing of glaciers, the break-up of ice on rivers and lakes, the lengthening of seasons, and the shifts in plants and animal ranges have all been attributed to global climate change. (29)

      Indeed, changes in the global environment have grave consequences for coping responses and adaptability. (30) As a result, the political and legal structure in dealing with the far-reaching effects of global climate change will be forced to acclimate. (31) The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has already warned that climate change will contribute to the scale and complexity of human displacement. (32)

    2. Slow-Onset vs. Sudden Impact Disasters

      Natural disasters are defined as the "serious disruption of the functioning of a society, causing widespread human, material, or environmental losses which exceed the ability of the affected society to cope using its own resources." (33) There are many different types of climate change induced disasters. (34) Two types of disasters in particular lead to the displacement of people within and outside the borders of their country--sudden impact disasters and slow onset disasters. (35)

      Floods, earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and other similar events are considered sudden impact disasters. (36) Such events not only devastate the internal infrastructure of a country, they also contribute to a sudden spike in the size of migratory populations. (37) By contrast, slow-onset disasters include droughts, famine, environmental degradation, deforestation, and desertification; these are caused by adverse weather conditions and poor land use. (38) Another type of slow-onset disaster is the significant loss of territory in low-lying coastal areas. (39) These slow-onset disasters are typically accompanied by early warning signs while sudden-onset disasters usually occur without warning. (40)

      Although slow and sudden-onset disasters present different implications, both have the potential to displace people from their homes. (41) The effects of these disasters are aggravated by human activities such as the overuse of land as well as industrial development. (42) It is also expected that climate change will continue to increase the severity of natural disasters. (43) Furthermore, the application of some countries' immigration laws is dependent on the nature of the disaster. Therefore, the victims of continuous environmental decline may not receive the full protection of a country's immigration laws. (44) Because of the inadequacies of current laws, international policy must adapt and present solutions to address different disaster phenomena. (45)

    3. Visible Effects of Climate Change

      In 1988, the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of human induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for mitigation and adaptation." (46) Since its creation, the IPCC has identified specific impacts of climate change in different regions of the world. (47)

      1. Low Lying Coastal Areas

        As seen in the Table 1, climate change has already begun to drastically affect coastal zones, which are particularly vulnerable to climate variability. (49) The United States Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts are already seeing higher sea levels and the subsidence of coastal lands. (50) The populations of the small island states in the Pacific Ocean will be the most immediately affected populations. (51) In fact, these countries have already seen the effects of climate change. In 1997, the Tuvaluan island of Tepuka Savilivili disappeared into the sea. (52) Rising sea levels currently threaten to submerge Kiribati, Palau, and the Marshall Islands, forcing people from their homes. (53) Significant changes in the environment of these islands will render them uninhabitable, requiring even more population relocation. (54)

        In 1992, an international treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was created to cooperatively find solutions to "limit average global temperature increases and the resulting climate change, and to cope with whatever impacts were, by then, inevitable." (55) However, some island nations have made additional efforts to address the threats posed by climate change. (56) One island nation has taken a more litigious approach. (57) In the fall of 2011, President Johnson Toribiong, the President of the Republic of Palau, took action at the United Nations once the...

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