In September of 2015, Ioane Teitiota was deported from New Zealand to his home country, Kiribati. He could have been the world’s first ‘climate refugee’, but New Zealand’s Court of Appeal denied his request for asylum. The court’s hands were tied because Teitiota did not fit any of the five categories of asylum under international law: race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.
Instead, the court sent Teitiota back to a homeland threatened by rising sea levels and storm surges, where the contaminated groundwater is making his children ill, and where the sea walls can no longer hold back the reality that his country is sinking into the Pacific.
Stories like Teitiota’s are, unfortunately, not unusual. Since 2008, more than 26 million people on average are displaced each year by natural disasters, or roughly one person displaced per second. Low-lying islands like Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tuvalu are particularly vulnerable to climate change. However, even coastal communities in the United States—most notably the Yup’ik people in Newtok, Alaska, and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana—are already facing displacement due to coastal erosion and devastating floods. Discussions on what to do about this human rights crisis have been going on for some time. The Nansen Initiative, for example, aims to build consensus among governments on a protection agenda for people displaced by climate change.
Until the international community comes up with a concrete solution for managing environmental displacement—whether that means amending the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees or adopting an entirely new agreement on climate migrants—what can at least be done right now is holding the worst perpetrators of climate change accountable for the harm they have caused. These chief offenders, deemed “Carbon Majors,” are the 90 fossil fuel companies that have contributed a combined 63% of greenhouse gas emissions exacerbating climate change. Some, if not all, of them have done so with full knowledge of the destructive consequences. Attorneys General in a number of states have begun investigating fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, for fraudulently misleading the public about the danger of carbon emissions and climate change. In July of this year, Congressional members introduced a resolution calling out the fossil fuel industry for its lies. Holding fossil fuel companies to account will not reverse the damage that has already been done. Teitiota will never get back the home he once knew. But if we are not yet prepared to protect the communities most threatened by climate change, the least we can do is give them justice.