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New Zealand's High Court Doesn't Care That Kiribati Will Soon Be Underwater

Kiribati is sinking. With an average height above sea-level of 2 meters, the small Pacific island nation is losing land as rising sea levels associated with climate change slowly engulf its shoreline. Changing weather patterns and coastal flooding have jeopardized food security, endangered the fresh water supply, and forced communities to relocate further inland. And things are about to get much worse: Kiribati's president, Anote Tong, forecasts that the country may be uninhabitable by 2050.

But that dire prediction has done little to inspire sympathy for the island nation's population. On Tuesday, New Zealand's High Court rejected an asylum application from Ioane Teitiota, a Kiribati national who appealed to the court on the basis that he and his family had no land to safely return to.

According to the court, his case fails to meet the criteria for refugee status. In his decision, Justice John Priestley wrote that "by returning to Kiribati, he would not suffer a sustained and systemic violation of his basic human rights such as the right to life ... or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing." The decision not only underscores the challenges for the vulnerable populations in the South Pacific, but the failures of international law to address the emerging crisis of climate refugees.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 32.4 million people were forced to flee their homes due to disaster in 2012, 98 percent of which were displaced by climate-related events, such as flooding, storms, and drought. According to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Refugees, climate refugees now outnumber refugees fleeing violence or persecution by three to one.

Despite the scale of the crisis, communities displaced by the effects of global warming have no legal protections under international law. The 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention was written to aid individuals in danger from war or political persecution and provides no framework to protect populations that face climate-related dangers. "The outcome of the Teitiota case re-affirms that the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is not an appropriate avenue through which to pursue the extension of protection to populations displaced as a result of climate change," Steve Trent, the executive director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, told Foreign Policy. "There is currently no coherent and systematic legal or policy framework operating at the international level to address the needs of these populations."

By accepting Teitiota's asylum claim, the High Court could have established a new precedent in a legal arena that has so far been woefully incapable of protecting these vulnerable populations. That the court declined to do so is perhaps not surprising: Recognizing the legitimacy of climate-related asylum cases would likely lead to thousands of additional such cases.

Then again, doing so would also acknowledge the reasons why a country like Kiribati may slip below the surface of the Pacific in the first place. According to 2010 estimates by World Resources Institute, New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions are 700 times those of Kiribati.

For now, Kiribati will continue to pay the price of that imbalance.

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

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