New Zealand accepts global warming refugees, sort of

"I do see the decision as being quite significant," said environmental law expert Vernon Rive.

By Brooks Hays
A beach on the island of Tuvalu. (CC/Stefan Lins)
A beach on the island of Tuvalu. (CC/Stefan Lins)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand, Aug. 7 (UPI) -- On a refugee application recently accepted by New Zealand, a Tuvalu family claimed they'd be forced out by global warming if they returned home. It's the first instance of refugees citing climate change as one of the reasons for their displacement.

But this particular family could be the first of many if sea level rise continues at the rate many climatologists have predicted. Tuvalu is a tiny island nation in the Pacific, between Hawaii and New Zealand. At just 6 feet above sea level, Tuvalu is one of many island nations that could be nearly swallowed by the sea by the end of the century.


Even if sea level rise happens at only half the rate of more dooming predictions, these sorts of places could quickly become uninhabitable as their coasts become increasingly vulnerable to storms.

This latest refugee case has many wondering: When will the floodgates for global warming refugees open?

As of now, climate change and sea level rise are not officially recognized as legitimate causes of displacement by the International Refugee Convention. And while the case of this Tuvalu family's application featured other circumstances -- the family had lived in New Zealand since 2007 and had strong ties to the community -- environmental lawyers have watched the situation closely, curious as to the case's larger implications.


"I do see the decision as being quite significant," Environmental law expert Vernon Rive told the New Zealand Herald. "But it doesn't provide an open ticket for people from all the places that are impacted by climate change. It's still a very stringent test and it requires exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian nature."

If nothing else, the case offers a glimpse of what's ahead.

In an email to the Washington Post, Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's climate change law program, wrote: "The world community has not even begun to grapple with what is to come."

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