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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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China's Dancing Grannies Are Such a Nuisance They Are Being Pelted with 'Shit Bombs'

The newspaper China Youth Daily estimated that over 100 million Chinese people do it. The magazine The World of Chinese called the tensions surrounding this activity, performed mostly by women between the ages of 40 and 65, a "national issue." And it provoked news outlet Ifeng to conclude, "Old people haven't gone bad, it's bad people who have gotten old."

The nefarious act in question is outdoor line dancing, in which pop or traditional Chinese tunes are blasted in public areas, often in the morning or the evening, as dozens of geriatrics move in unison to the beat. 

And over the past several months, it appears China's would-be party-poopers are growing increasingly fed up with the practice. Residents of one such neighborhood in the central Chinese city of Chengdu reached a breaking point on April 12: They threw water balloons at a gathering of women in the square below who refused to turn down the volume. In Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, on Oct. 24, unknown assailants hurled "a large amount of poop" out of their windows and onto the heads of dancers assembled below. "The whole square stunk to high heaven," a dancer surnamed Chen told state-run China Central Television. (The perpetrators are still at large.) And in November, a group boogying outdoors in Changsha, the capital of southern China's Hunan province, complained to Huasheng Online, a local news website, that they had been hit with "shit bombs" no less than three times since Aug. 2012. 

At least shit bombs aren't dangerous: China Youth Daily reported that on Nov. 5, a 58-year-old Beijing man surnamed Shi fired his (illegal) shotgun into the air and released three large dogs on a group of women dancing in a square near his home in the suburbs. Shi said he had repeatedly complained to organizers about the noise. (The article did not mention whether any of the women had been hurt.) 

As China's urban population grows, from 502 million in 2002 to 712 million in 2012, city dwellers have struggled to coexist peacefully in increasingly crowded spaces. Yang Hongshan, a professor of urban planning and management at Beijing's Renmin University, told China Youth Daily that the government's failure to set aside indoor spaces for public activities during urban planning had contributed to the growing number of conflicts. "Since there are no places to hold these activities," he argued, "City residents have no choice but to go to these outdoor squares."

Without alternative locations for their gatherings, the majority of China's public dancers may keep on dancing. For their part, some of the dancers could not fathom why neighbors were so vexed. "We'll keep the noise down, but people should be up and going to work by 8 a.m.," argued the leader of one such group in the southern Chinese city of Nanjing. "Why can't young people just get up earlier?"

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