Kiribati Man Denied Climate Refugee Status

There is a serious need for us (the US, UN and the world) to examine our legal definitions and protections for people who are relocating because of the impacts of climate change. This is no longer simply  an academic exercise.

Earlier this month, a man from Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas, learn more about this country at my earlier post here) applied to New Zealand immigration authorities to be considered a “climate refugee”. In his application, he explains that he fears for his children’s future on the coral atolls Kiribati, since the sand island they live on barely sit above sea level. But refugees are strictly defined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as people who are being prosecuted  on account of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The Refugee Convention makes no reference to relocation based on environmental threats. His application was refused. Read more about the man’s story here.

In an article covering this story for the Huffington Post, attorney, activist and author Brook Meakins explains:

“Advocates for the victims of climate change often use the evocative terms “climate change refugee” when referring to individuals who must relocate due to climate change related impacts. Academics and those that know refugee law have appropriately criticized the use of this term, pointing out the fact that well-settled refugee law simply excludes climate change victims from its definition. Still, it is quite frequent in my line of work to hear the term climate change refugee. I have been guilty of this in the past — it is very tempting to use the word “refugee” when advocating for those that have to move from their homes, villages, and countries through no fault of their own. I have stopped using the term, however, because, in addition to the fact that it is simply inaccurate, it also conveys a false sense of legal and international hope for the victims of climate change. If we think an international legal framework has already been carved out for these people, it provides a sense of relief that, in this case, we simply cannot have. It is dangerous to believe that there are answers and protections for these people because that is simply untrue.”

Meakins has me thinking about what terminology does justice to these people. How to create a collective language that explains the threats and political challenges soon millions of people will be facing. Going to write a post on terminology soon and why I choose to title this blog climate migrants as opposed to climate refugees…


Kiribati and 100,000 climate migrants

Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) is an island nation in the central Pacific Ocean and currently home to 100,000 people. It is part of a division of Pacific islands known as Micronesia and has 33 coral island divided up into three groups: Gilbert, Phoenix and Line Islands. Several people from Kiribati have been in the news recently, because of the direct impact that climate change is going to have on the existence of these islands and their people.

As the arctic melts and sea levels begin to rise, the islands themselves will be washed away. The threats the communities face include access to land, water and food. The President is currently working to develop opportunities for people to migrate and find new homes. But as David Lambourne, Kiribati Attorney General, explains the existence of a people is at stake. “No culture wants to basically abandon ship and be spread to the four winds. Because I think everybody accepts that there is no way we could as a community retain our sense of identity. No country is going to accept 100,000 Kiribatis to come and set up a new country somewhere else.”

Watch this 5 minute documentary, where both President Anote Tong and Attorney General Lambourne in Kiribati explain the challenge that they and their people are facing today:

Climate change might meant the end of the Kiribati people. We need to accelerate the adaptation efforts for communities like those in Kiribati who are already facing the impacts of climate change.

What is Climate Justice?

The climate movement is perhaps of the youngest mass movements today. Some claim it was born in September 2006, while having a long history and deep roots in the struggle for environmental justice. Those in the climate movement are working to stop the most devastating impacts of climate change and re-balance the world in an ecologically sustainable way. Climate justice provides a framework that many in the climate movement have embraced as the best ways to organize and build a mass movement–one that considers both the social and environmental impacts of our work. As opposed to crafting my own definition of climate justice, I am going to borrow from a compilation of definitions beautifully woven together by Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell in Organizing Cools the Planet.

Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative

Roots in Environmental Justice: “Climate Justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.

Demanding Climate Justice section of Hoodwinked in the Hothouse (published by Rising Tide North America)

Climate Justice as Evaluative Model: “Climate Justice is a struggle over land, forest, water, culture, food sovereignty, collective and social rights; it is a struggle that considers “justice” at the basis of any solution; a struggle that supports climate solutions found in the practices and knowledge of those already fighting to protect and defend their livelihoods and the environment; a struggle that insists on a genuine systematic transformation in order to tackle the real causes of climate change… Climate Justice addresses four key themes: root causes, rights, reparations and participatory democracy.”

Global Justice Ecology Project

Climate Justice as Global Justice: “The historical responsibility for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions lies with the industrialized countries of the Global North. Even though the primary responsibility of the North to reduce emissions has been recognized in the UN Climate Convention, the production and consumption habits of industrialized countries like the United States continue to threaten the survival of humanity and biodiversity globally. It is imperative that the North urgently shifts to a low carbon economy. At the same time, in order to avoid the damaging carbon intensive model of industrialization, countries of the Global South are entitled to resources and technology to make a transition to a low-carbon economy that does not continue to subject them to crushing poverty. Indigenous Peoples, peasant communities, fisherfolk, and especially women in these communities, have been able to live harmoniously and sustainably with the Earth for millennia. They are now not only the most affected by climate change, but also the most affected by its false solutions, such as agrofuels, mega-dams, genetic modification, tree plantations and carbon offset schemes.

Indigenous Environmental Network

Four Principles for Climate Justice: “Industrialized society must redefine its relationship with the sacredness of Mother Earth

  1. Leave Fossil Fuels in the Ground
  2. Demand Real and Effective Solutions
  3. Industrialized – Developed Countries Take Responsibility
  4. Living in a Good Way on Mother Earth

Movie: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) is by far the best movie I’ve seen this year. While much credit should be given to the director for the piecing together this incredible story, the 6 year old protagonist blows this film out of the water. Now 8-years-old, Quvenzhané Wallis got some attention for telling off Jay Leno earlier this year. This powerhouse actress does an incredible job pulling in viewers to life in the Bathtub and taking them along for the full ride in a post-Katrina Louisiana.

The movie dances an incredible line of telling the human impacts of climate change without ever becoming didactic or impersonal or ever saying the words climate change. Hushpuppy you are my hero for negotiating fluid and challenging gender roles, surviving a hostile environment, fighting for your home, and not for a second losing an ounce of your humanity.

This movie is a must see, and brilliantly lays out a story of climate migrants. There have been some critiques by Black feminist authors about relegating Black folks to a master narrative of primitive or even savage, but I agree with New Orleanian Jarvis DeBerry’s analysis. Spoiler alert: read it here from I will write a disclaimer that this film has a fair amount of emotional violence, so if that is a trigger for you this might not be the best one to view.

“Sometimes you can break something so bad, that it can’t get put back together.” Welcome to the Bathtub.

Happy Birthday Occupy!

Photo Credit: Gene Taylor,

It’s not a coincidence that I am launching this blog on the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. One of the most beautiful successes of the Occupy movement has been to link different issues together under a shared political analysis. While right wing media critiqued Occupy Wall Street as lacking clarity, in actuality the analysis of our current crisis is in dire need of a more comprehensive framework. Housing foreclosures, student debt, private prisons, mass deportations and environmental degradation were being talked about in the same space. This is something that the non-profit-ization of justice-focused work has made more challenging over the past few decades. (For full disclosure, I am happily and fully employed by a well-established, national nonprofit organization.)

The past few weeks I have been engaged in some intense organizing for justice on the national stage and I found myself torn between issues. By day, I was spending my long work hours organizing against climate change and local environmental pollution; and by night, I was supporting the work of my friends in the struggle for immigrant rights. It was during this space that I was again deeply reminded of the need for progressive movements to align our interlocking struggles.

The past few weeks I also confirmed my fear that the climate justice movement and immigrant rights movements in the United States are rarely in communication with one another. (At least, several  major players on the national level are not.) And yet, we desperately need to work together in the coming years to deal with the global crisis of climate refugees and climate migrants (the direct overlap between climate change and immigration crisis in the undeniably potentially devastating form).

As the impacts of climate change grow more real every week, scarcity over resources like food, water and land will push more people to leave their homes and migrate to resource rich countries. One day many of the world’s poor will have nothing to eat but the rich. This blog is my attempt to link some of the conversations within these two movements. It is my call to action for the environmental and social justice communities to unite before we are torn apart. Afterall, we are the 99%.