19/10/2015 6:02 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Climate Change: Some People Have Nowhere To Run

There is no regional or global mechanism to take care of the fate of people displaced by the impacts of climate change. Even if your island is under water, you do not fit within the current international legal definition of 'refugee', which is all about persecution.

Handout via Getty Images
KIRIBATI - MARCH 13: In this handout image provided by Plan International Australia, people move away from the beach March 13, 2015 on the island of Kiribati. Cyclone Pam is pounding South Pacific islands with hurricane force winds, huge ocean swells and flash flooding. (Photo by Plan International Australia via Getty Images)

Sitting on the sandbags next to the edge of the main road as the sea spray hits you, the abstract of climate change driving sea level rise is suddenly personal. I give a silent prayer of thanks for the Australian passport in my pocket, which means I have the right to leave.

But for the entire population of just over 50,000 people on Tarawa, the main island of the Republic of Kiribati, there is nowhere else to go.

Tarawa is one of the 32 atolls and a coral island that make up Kiribati. All of Tarawa is just a couple of meters from inundation; the highest point on the island of is a slight rise in the one main road.

As the waters rise, the tides get bigger and the storms get worse, and everyone's got a story of what is happening to their homeland.

There's the one about the maternity hospital which flooded, even as a new mother was giving birth. The young blokes restoring broken seawalls answer my questions by invoking the endlessness of their work trying to hold back the tides. The girl who told my colleague that when the water came into her bedroom one day, all she could do was climb on the bed. There really is nowhere else to go.

I was in Tarawa recently to attend a High Level Dialogue on Climate Change Migration. The meeting was a joint initiative of one of the true odd couples of global politics, President Anote Tong of Kiribati and Prince Albert II of Monaco. Both men were there in person and took an active part in proceedings.

On current projections, Tarawa will become uninhabitable due to a sea level rise by the middle of this century unless there is significant adaptation to the changes it is experiencing. It may happen earlier than this; one delegate to the conference, a scientist, said he thought things were happening faster than predicted.

Nobody wants to leave their homes. In material terms, Kiribati is one of the poorest countries on earth, but the cultural wealth of the I-Kiribati is immediately striking to the outsider.

But, there is no regional or global mechanism to take care of the fate of people displaced by the impacts of climate change. Even if your island is under water, you do not fit within the current international legal definition of 'refugee', which is all about persecution. As it stands, under the law anyone fleeing their drowned homeland would simply become, legally and literally, a stateless person.

Leaders of low-lying small island states such as President Tong and Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga of Tuvalu are not giving up. They are among the strongest advocates of urgent global action to reduce carbon emissions, to maximise the chance of some or all of their homes being saved from drowning.

But the big deal at this event was the assembled leaders advocating for the concept of migration with dignity. The idea seems fair and principled: If people must leave their homes, then let it be in a planned, orderly, safe and timely fashion in which they are treated with respect by the international community.

As the richest and most powerful country in the region with a lot at stake strategically, Australia has a special interest and obligation to lead on a solution for Pacific Islanders displaced by climate change. As one of the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases and the second largest exporter of coal in the world, Australia is also an oversized contributor to the problem.

At present, Australia is failing to acknowledge our special obligation to our neighbours and partners in the Pacific. In so doing, we are also failing the test of leadership and failing to serve our own national long-term interest.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's recent joke about rising sea levels was repugnant yet perhaps not entirely a surprise given the former Abbott government's myopic approach to this humanitarian crisis.

On this issue, as on so many others, there is a real opportunity for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to claim his special spot in the history books by drawing a line under the approach of his predecessor.

If we start now and get the laws, plans and systems in place before crisis hits, migration with dignity in the Pacific could become one of the great stories of international cooperation.

As President Tong gave his welcoming address at the state reception for delegates, an almighty storm broke, with rain and lightning driving us all under cover. "The weather is getting so much worse these days," muttered the locals.

We were all grateful to have somewhere safe to go, to keep us warm and dry.


David Ritter is the CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, which is a founding member of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network (PICAN), an alliance of NGOs campaigning for climate justice.