Following the somewhat disheartening conclusion of the Rio +20 conference, climate change has been making headlines over the past few weeks through a widely circulated Rolling Stone article and a New York Times Op-Ed by a climate change skeptic-turned-believer. At the International Centre for Migration, Health and Development we have previously blogged about the risks that climate change will pose to public health, but the statelessness that could ensue as a result of entire nations being wiped off the map due to climate change opens up a completely new chapter of concern.
According to the Accords that came out of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen in 2009, a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius is the limit that our planet can take but, some are arguing that even this number is far too high. According to their calculations even if the two degree mark is not surpassed, many island nations will not survive. Low-lying island states such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau, and the Marshall Islands are all at risk of disappearing under rising sea-levels. However, even before this happens, these islands are likely to become increasingly uninhabitable due to the loss of freshwater, arable land and an increased incidence of diseases such as malaria and diarrhea.
While some climate change prompted relocation has already occurred in some of these islands, especially Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea, most of the relocation has to date been internal and readily accepted by host communities. The growing likelihood of moving people off these islands and getting other countries to accept them poses a much different threat. Thus, while the numbers of people involved are relatively small (according to WHO, the population of Tuvalu in 2010 was 10,000 people; the Maldives had 316,000, Kiribati had 99,000, and the Marshall Islands had 54,000), the idea that entire national populations will need to relocate presents migration questions that have not been previously entertained.
If these islands do disappear one of the most obvious questions is where will the people who are now living on them, go. Forced permanent relocation is never easy and national attitudes and policies with regard to asylum have hardened in recent years. People displaced from these islands would have to either try to be accepted by other countries or the island states would need to recreate themselves by acquiring territory elsewhere. The former is never easy and indeed is becoming less so. The latter raises far-reaching questions of sovereignty, land availability and the willingness of countries to sell part of their “heritage”.
Furthermore, the concept of climate change refugees and statelessness due to climate change is unprecedented and does not fall neatly into the framework of existing conventions such as the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which holds that a person is considered stateless if they are not considered a “national by any state under the operation of its law.” Theoretically, if a country were to cease to exist as a result of climate change, then citizenship of that state would also vanish with it. It also raises the question of whether the physical disappearance of a country would constitute its disappearance as a legal state, or if territory ceded to it by another state could prevent this.