– As Tropical Cyclone Pam ripped through the South Pacific earlier this month, Ioane Teitiota was 2,600 miles away in New Zealand checking Facebook for updates from friends and relatives back in Kiribati, a string of coral atolls about halfway between Australia and Hawaii.
The devastation wrought by the category five storm underscores the uncertain future faced by many in small Pacific Island nations as extreme weather events and climate change intensify. It’s a fate already being tested by Teitiota, who has launched an improbable bid to become the world’s first climate change refugee.
“I worry about our future, for our kids,” said Teitiota, sitting barefoot on a threadbare couch in his Auckland home as his three children run in and out, clutching pieces of white bread smeared with Nutella. People in Kiribati “are worried for their lives.”
Teitiota (pronounced Tess-yota) is legally contesting efforts by New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s government to deport him in a case that may have far-reaching consequences for citizens of low-lying countries threatened by rising seas.
After a run of missed visa deadlines, the tomato farmer, 38, was arrested during a routine traffic stop in 2011.
Teitiota and his wife, Angua Erika, sought out attorney Michael Kidd. The Auckland lawyer, who’s also a pastor, says Teitiota and his family have been indirectly persecuted by industrialized nations, as their failure to check greenhouse-gas emissions propels the process of climate change.
The claim has been rejected by New Zealand’s migration tribunal, High Court and Court of Appeal, which called it “fundamentally misconceived” because Teitiota was seeking refuge in a developed country, the alleged source of his oppression. Undeterred, Kidd is arguing for the case to be heard by the nation’s Supreme Court.
“I’m a sucker for helping people and he didn’t have any other options,” said Kidd, 63. “There’s substantial burying of heads in the sand going on.”
Over the past 20 years, New Zealand and Australia have rebuffed at least 17 applications from Pacific Islanders seeking refugee status because of climate change, according to Jane McAdam, an expert in refugee law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
She says the route is largely futile for victims of global warming because the threat doesn’t fit within the confines of the 1951 Refugee Convention, created to define the legal rights of citizens fleeing their homelands in the aftermath of World War II.
There is little political will among governments to create new categories of people requiring protection, McAdam said. In 2011, the United Nations’ refugee agency tried and failed to get a mandate to start looking at a global framework for dealing with displacement wrought by climate change and natural disasters.
It’s also hard to pin down individual events as being “caused by” the phenomenon, McAdam said, meaning initiatives like the Convention for Persons Displaced by Climate Change, a treaty proposed by a group of Australian lawyers, will find it difficult to gain traction.
John Campbell, a geographer at New Zealand’s University of Waikato, estimates as many as 1.7 million people could be uprooted by climate change in the Pacific region by 2050. The International Organization for Migration puts the figure globally at around 200 million.
New Zealand acknowledges Pacific countries’ concerns that climate change may impact their environments, but it is not grounds under international law for granting refugee status, said Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse. The government “does not have climate-related immigration policies” and is focused on addressing the issue through its aid program in the Pacific, he said.
New Zealand is already home to one of the world’s biggest Pacific Islander communities, accounting for 7 percent of the country’s total population of 4.5 million. In Auckland, where supermarkets sell island staples like taro and breadfruit, one in five citizens will be of Pacific descent by 2043, according to city council projections. Australia is the region’s biggest aid donor and trading partner.
These ties, as well as the fact both countries have contributed to global warming, mean they have a “special responsibility” toward the peoples of the Pacific, said Russel Norman, co-leader of New Zealand’s Green Party. “This is our neighborhood,” he said. “We need to talk to Pacific Island nations about the solutions they want.”
New Zealand has a green-card style system that grants residency via a ballot to citizens of four Pacific Island nations. The annual quota for Kiribati was boosted to 75 from 50 one year into the program, which was started in 2002, and the average number of applications was 90 in the four most recent rounds, data from the immigration department show. Both Australia and New Zealand offer seasonal work programs for Pacific Islanders.
The number of places offered in the residency scheme could be increased as the effects of climate change displace more people in the islands, said Su’a William Sio, a spokesman on Pacific affairs for New Zealand’s main opposition Labour Party.
Sio, who moved from Samoa to New Zealand as a child, represents a voting district in south Auckland that is more than 50 percent Pacific Islander. He says climate-change displacement is often raised by his constituents.
“This is real, this is happening now,” he said.
While no climate change refugee bid has succeeded, the issue figured prominently in a case last year when a family from the tiny island nation of Tuvalu successfully appealed their deportation from New Zealand on humanitarian grounds.
Even though the fact most of their relatives lived in New Zealand formed the basis of the decision, the impact of climate change on the family’s ability to have a “safe and fulfilling life” in Tuvalu was cited prominently, particularly as it related to the couple’s two young children.
It was potentially the first such case to so directly raise the issue of climate change in the Pacific and succeed, said Vernon Rive, an environmental lawyer at AUT University in Auckland who’s researching legal and policy responses to climate displacement for a book.
Almost 45 percent of Tuvalu’s 10,800 people -- who are spread across 26 square kilometers (10 square miles) of atolls and reef no more than 15 feet above sea level -- were displaced by Cyclone Pam, Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga told Radio New Zealand International. In 1997, three cyclones washed away almost 7 percent of the country’s land mass, according to UN estimates.
“Everyone’s trying to facilitate the process of moving across,” said Afa’ese Manoa, founder of New Zealand’s Pacific Island Climate Change Action Forum. Manoa left Tuvalu in 1989 and now lives in Auckland, where he’s an advocate for the community. “The majority of Tuvaluans have this concept that Tuvalu will eventually go under water,” he said.
Sea levels in the western Pacific are rising at about four times the global average, according to the UN Environment Programme, tainting ground water, poisoning arable land and swallowing up once livable islets.
Tropical cyclones are occurring in the region at an intensity never seen before as the oceans warm, said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s special envoy for climate change. More frequent, destructive storms are a “game changer” for low-lying atoll nations and they need help bolstering their natural defenses now, not in the next decade, she said.
In Vanuatu, the former British-French colony that bore the brunt of Pam’s wrath, about 80 percent of homes were destroyed or damaged in the capital Port Vila and some outer islands were rendered almost unlivable, according to Chris Philip, a spokesman for the country’s disaster management office.
Creeping tides in the Pacific are already causing people to leave smaller, remote islands for more densely populated areas, boosting competition for jobs and exerting pressure on public infrastructure. Kiribati’s President, Anote Tong, who’s spoken about the region’s plight at the UN, predicts his country -- home to around 105,000 people -- will start to disappear by about 2030. The government has already bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji, 1,400 miles south of Kiribati.
As a child, Teitiota lived on an outer island. He planted coconut trees with his father, their fronds used to clad traditional island houses. The sea was their lifeline, the main source of food. Yet as he grew up, it became something more sinister, a bearer of slow and unpredictable destruction.
Before they made the two-plane journey to New Zealand in 2007, Teitiota and Erika were living in Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa, with more than 15 of her relatives in a house the size of their current living room. The settlement, where only 34 percent of adults had cash employment in 2010, is a series of islets less than 10 feet above sea level joined by causeways.
Teitiota and Erika can’t follow the Tuvaluan family and apply for residency on humanitarian grounds because they missed the relevant deadline. Kidd, their lawyer, says he’ll take their case to the UN’s human rights committee if the Supreme Court refuses to hear it.
If he’s not successful, the couple’s New Zealand-born children will be deported along with them back to Kiribati, a place they’ve never been to and only know through their parents’ stories.
“Before, most of the people hated me” because they saw the case as a slight against Kiribati, said Teitiota, gazing out at an aging palm tree that hugs the deck in his Auckland backyard. “But now, they encourage me because some of the places up there are broken -- the causeway, the hospital, the king tide goes over the roads. It’s now worse than before.”