THE BLOG

A Climate Change Refugee

12/09/2013 03:27 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2014

Recently, a legal case in New Zealand captured world media attention. An individual, facing deportation to his home in Kiribati, claimed refugee status resulting from the impact of climate change, sea level rise, and extreme weather on his small island nation which some have predicted will be inundated within decades, forcing the entire national population -- some 50,000 people -- now inhabiting a narrow island of just six square miles, to seek a new homeland. His name is Ioane Teitiota.

The High Court Judge denied his claim, dismissing it as "unconvincing" and "novel." Well, legally unconvincing maybe, the government defenders were easily able to find legalistic reasons to discredit the argument. But novel? That is a different matter. The judge should not have been afraid of precedent; after all, lawyers seek and cite precedent all the time. But the implication of a novel standing as a refugee from climate change, the result of deliberate national policies and private actions over which a single citizen or even small undeveloped country has no control-now, that is another matter. Indeed, that is terrifying by its implication.

Beneath any vindication of Mr. Teitiota's claim lies another acceptance: that of responsibility for the contribution by the developed economies and multinational corporations to environmental conditions resulting in storm surge, flooding and water contamination, community dislocation, and, in such cases as Kiribati, the probable collapse of a nation. It is facile to deny the link between certain human behaviors, economic policies, corporate actions and changing climate, to ignore the arguments and evidence of responsible science, and to argue that the energy demands of the larger world and its growth and consumption-based economies are far more important than the life of one man, or even one insignificant country. Tell that to the residents of New Orleans post-Katrina or the devastated homeowners along the New Jersey and New York shoreline post-Sandy and you may find angry pushback from those citizens of the developed world seeking compensation for the destruction not just of property but also of their lives.

These events are not going away: Last month, super typhoon Haiyan struck the central Philippines with unprecedented strength, leaving almost 6,000 dead and millions displaced. Entire villages were destroyed, entire livelihoods, entire families -- a tragedy that joins other perhaps lesser events with equal, terminal impact on those affected. But think also what this leaves behind, what faces the survivors in the form of reconstruction of buildings, infrastructure, occupation, food supply, local and regional economy, and the critical water and health needs of the area. Millions are left behind, and why would we not expect them to migrate to higher ground, safer communities, new opportunities for themselves and their families. Many of these will become refugees, not from war and politics, but from the consequence of climate change.

The New Zealand judge cited the United Nations Refugee Convention in his decision, stating that Mr. Teitiota did not meet the "fear of persecution" criterion that is central to the UN definition. But is not fear of persecution by circumstances already demonstrated, or by a high probability of similar destruction, reason for seeking an alternative status in a safer place? Especially when the situation is known for both its cause and its inevitable effect and the victims have no defense against the indifference of the perpetrators? And is it only the numbers that matter? Must the destruction be measured only in massive political disruption? Or gross national product? Or vast economic loss? Or untenable cost of reconstruction? Or numbers of people killed or driven from their homes, never to return? Must it be millions? More? Or does the life of one man stand for us all?

We are responsible. We fight to little end over the stupidest things while we deny responsibility for our own actions and ignore the consequence of climate inaction with righteous indifference. Often, on the weekly radio program, World Ocean Radio, I mention the question we all ask when faced with these large, disturbing questions: What can I, just one person, do? The issues are so enormous, and my actions so insignificant.

I give you Ionae Teitiota, whose "unconvincing" and "novel" court case captured the attention of the world. I hope he appeals, and that the environmental NGOs and legal defense organizations cleave to his argument, and that all of us, in some way, file "friend of the court" opinions that indicate our concern that this matter deserves a different decision, not just for Mr. Teitiota but as means to address who and how he, and all other such refugees, now and certainly to come, will be treated and protected legally as a result of our failure to act. The November climate change meeting in Warsaw, despite some advances in a tortured process, offered little hope that the issues and disagreements will be resolved with any dispatch. Thus, the precedent matters, perhaps as means by which those responsible should be held accountable. We know who they are, the arguments they use to evade accountability and governance, and the threat they sustain -- making climate refuges of us all.