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Saving the First Climate Refugees

As the island nation of Tuvalu sinks into the ocean, the international legal community tries to craft a policy to help people displaced by climate change.

You can always go home again. Unless your home has been swallowed by floodwaters or fallen below sea level. But while victims of hurricanes in New Orleans or tsunamis in Southeast Asia can rely (sooner or later) on their national governments for support, there are entire island nations which face destruction with no support mechanism. By 2010, an estimated 50 million people will be displaced by the effects of climate change. That's approximately the combined population of New York, Florida, and Illinois made homeless. And that number is expected to rise to 150 million (nearly half the current population of the United States) by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.Consider the pacific island nation of Tuvalu, consisting of nine coral atolls-circular or horseshoe-shaped coral reef islands which encircle a central lagoon-whose entire population is about 12,000. Increased carbon emissions in polluting countries like the United States and China have driven up

temperatures, melted ice-caps, and caused a significant rise in the sea-level surrounding the Tuvalu islands. To make matters worse, Tuvalu's forests have been cleared to provide fuel for the tiny nation. The combination of these effects has led to excessive erosion of the beaches. As a result, the highest point on the islands is now only about 14 feet above sea level and the sea level is rising by 1.5–2 inches a year. Scientists believe the country could be completely submerged in the next 60 years. It is no wonder that the people of Tuvalu have become known as the world's first climate change refugees.So what to do? Nearly a tenth of the population has already fled to nearby Auckland, New Zealand, which has the largest concentration of Tuvaluan migrants. But the wholesale displacement of the Tuvaluan population to Australia or New Zealand is not an option, according to the Tuvaluan government. The prime minister addressed the United Nations in 2008, arguing "that it is the political and moral responsibility of the world, particularly those who caused the problem, to save small islands and countries like Tuvalu from climate change." Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia laid out a plan involving incentives to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions for polluter countries, better funding for land reclamation and sanitation projects, and the creation of an International Climate Change Insurance Pool.And it seems that the prime minister's campaign is supported by recent developments in international law. Last March, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution making climate change a human rights issue. The resolution drew on findings by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and a 2005 resolution by the Commission on Human Rights. The international community has finally recognized a fundamental human right to environmental protection and development. This recognition will allow climate change advocates, NGOs, and effected member-states greater access to personnel, logistical, and research support to comply with international mandates.Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary of the UNFCC, has demanded more attention to the thousands of small villages in Africa and Southeast Asia which may also be home to climate change refugees. As he noted in a recent debate at The Hague, "those densely populated and low-lying areas where adaptive
capacity is already low and which face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence are especially at risk."It's a shame that it took the threat of losing an entire island nation to prompt serious discussion about climate change from the international legal community. Three years ago, policymakers mocked Al Gore's animation of Manhattan submerged in An Inconvenient Truth. While they pondered whether Greenland's ice caps could really melt fast enough to flood New York, an entire nation was falling into the sea. We need international legal solutions that reflect the urgent risks that climate change presents. A pressing question is whether climate change refugees should have the right to asylum and other rights granted to political refugees under the Geneva Convention. Hopefully, an answer will come soon for the sake of the Tuvalu people.Guest blogger Olivier Kamanda is the editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy Digest. Top image: Tavaud Teii, Deputy Prime Minister of Tuvalu, discusses how Tuvlau is impacted by climate change. By flickr user (cc) oxfam. Bottom images by flickr user (cc) leighblackall.

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