Monday, 9 April 2012

Climate Change: The Right to an Island Life

Sam Storr

Coastal cities such as Bangkok put large populations at risk to climate change. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Although the causes and dangers of climate change are becoming widely accepted, the lark of purpose and agreement at climate change summits has been disappointing. It is known that the problems of the future must be solved in the present, but this does not seem to provide the urgency for nations to overcome their historical differences.
The former Tebunginako village, Abaian Island kiribatiisgone Ciril Jazbec
Yet, for some nations, climate change and rising sea levels pose an immediate and severe existential threat. Rising sea levels are already threatening low-lying island nations like the Maldives, Kiribati, and Tuvalu. In their voices lies a desperation at the complacency of climate talks, which Mohamed Nasheed, ousted president of the Maldives, referred to as a ‘pact for suicide’.
Kiribati has already bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji in case of a forced resettlement, and the Maldives have been considering purchases in Australia. In 2009, the world’s first climate change refugees were announced as the islanders of Carteret, Papua New Guinea. In 2011, islands in the South Pacific were left with a serious shortage of drinking water
Referred to as ‘sinking states’, they have become a focal point for debates on the future of climate change policy. The case of the sinking state is a potential harbinger of the threat posed to the large coastal cities and low-lying regions of the world. If mutual self-interest is insufficient, the urgent voice coming from the shoreline could provide an evocative, human reason for carbon-emitting countries to accept that their actions have consequences, and costs. Great legal and policy changes need to be made to mitigate the damage and prevent human rights from being violated.
Flooded volleyball pitch, Kiribati kiribatiisgone Ciril Jazbec
Tuvalu did attempt in 2002 to sue Australia and the US at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for breaching their obligations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but this and other attempts were quickly abandoned in the face of the difficulties entailed.
Firstly, a mediating body such as the ICJ requires the consent of all nations in a dispute. Secondly, a state must prove not that it has been damaged, but that another has failed in its legal obligations. Whilst the main emitters of CO2 refuse to ratify legally binding agreements on emissions, prosecuting states have little to work with. Thirdly, there are no precedents for establishing a causal link between the specific emissions of one country, and the damage suffered by another. Above all, the huge cost of litigation does little to favour the marginalised.
The way home is flooded, and the village cannot afford flood protection kiribatiisgone Ciril Jazbec
Rather than sue for compensation on expected future damages, there is better legal precedent for claiming the costs of preventing damages. It is more plausible that reparations be made in the form of climate-related aid; plans are afoot for $100 billion to be available by 2020, though as of yet there have been no contributions.
This option keeps the amount paid firmly in the control of contributing countries, who will not be accepting direct liability or subjugation to a legal process.  It is even alleged that aid is simply a bribe to encourage acceptance of inadequate agreements. The lack of follow-through caused tensions at the CancĂșn climate summit of 2010, and some argued that the new funds from the US were only cut from other aid budgets.
The issue of compensation has therefore only provided another stumbling-block as major emitters seek to minimise their responsibilities. The scale of the funds discussed shows a recognition of the cost of failing to act, but does not appear to be encouraging action. Although the proposal for part of this aid to come from a tax on carbon emissions by private companies is more attractive, some nations will no doubt wish to protect their national industries.
There exists no legal category for persons considered to be displaced due to climate change, and it is usually stated that the refugee system, more a product of convenience than ideals, would not survive such a revolution. This leads some scholars to see regional agreements and national immigration policies, under the guidance of norms of human rights law, as the way forward. Prominently, New Zealand, but not Australia, has been convinced to allow 75 labour migrants each from Kiribati and Tuvalu each year.
In the case of a ‘sinking state’, the population would leave long before their land is uninhabitable, and the effect this would have on their statehood is disputed. Therefore the issue is not so much to create new forms of asylum, but to accommodate the population movements that are a natural means of coping with environmental change.
Coconut palms lose their heads to saltwater kiribatiisgone Ciril Jazbec
This requires a significant loosening of border restrictions at a time when developed countries are increasingly hostile to immigration. The same set of closed national interests that hamstring climate-change negotiations will hold back plans to accommodate the effects of this stasis, and prevent better-informed policies from lessening environmental impacts. Climate change may increase internal migration to low-lying coastal cities, creating greater poverty and vulnerability to climate-related disasters, and is also seen as a likely cause of future conflicts.
Climate migrants face an uphill battle in having their rights to resettle recognised. Refugee practice can play an important role by ensuring that the established human rights of a population are respected throughout a migration, though new protection mechanisms will have to be established. As worsening conditions and recurring disasters create large and very sudden population movements across borders, it may be that refugees cannot be safely returned without some coercion, violating the principle of non-refoulement. Without new categories of protected persons this right may be threatened. Yet the term ‘climate migration’ is criticised for simplifying a huge variety of types, sizes and durations of population movement. It will also be increasingly difficult to separate a climate migrant from an economic one.
Although attempts are being made to atone for climate change and anticipate future human rights challenges, so far this effort is mostly channelled towards minimal responsibility rather than averting the coming reality. In this context, it is indeed wise for island nations to be saving for land and negotiating visas.