Archive for the 'Claire McNear' Category

Sea change: Environmental refugees and “the defining challenge of our time”

By Claire McNear, on 13 March 2014

By Claire McNear

“It is not for the High Court of New Zealand to alter the scope of the Refugee Convention…. Rather that is the task, if they so choose, of the legislatures of sovereign states.”

So wrote New Zealand High Court judge John Priestley in his November 2013 denial of a rather unusual legal petition: a man from Kiribati was seeking to become the world’s first environmental refugee.

The Refugee Convention Priestley refers to is the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1952 international treaty establishing who is eligible for refugee status and what rights he or she is entitled to, most notably asylum. The Refugee Convention is the backbone of international refugee law today; in 2012 alone, 893,700 people submitted applications for asylum, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

It was under this convention that Ioane Teitiota sought to remain in New Zealand. Teitiota first came to New Zealand in 2007. When his work visa expired in early 2013, he faced deportation back to his native Kiribati, along with his wife and their three children. Teitiota appealed, claiming in the Auckland High Court that he and his family would face “serious harm” and suffering if they were made to return.

Tarawa Lagoon in the capital of Kiribati, South Tarawa. The lagoon is heavily polluted, and visitors are advised to avoid its waters. Courtesy Luigi Guarino / Flickr

Tarawa Lagoon in the capital of Kiribati, South Tarawa. The lagoon is heavily polluted, and visitors are advised to avoid its waters. Courtesy Luigi Guarino / Flickr

The plight of Kiribati is a serious one. The central Pacific island nation, home to 100,000, is made up of 33 low-lying atolls, which at their highest point are just 2 meters above sea level. Faced with rising seas that have already caused widespread water contamination and crop damage, Kiribati teeters at the edge of catastrophe: its president has said that the entire nation may be uninhabitable in as little as 30 years. In October 2011, just months after issuing the nation a $20 million grant to devise methods to cope with climate change that was followed shortly thereafter by $2 million in emergency food aid, the World Bank published a report calling Kiribati “one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change,” citing rising seas, agricultural damage, and exposure to extreme weather events like cyclones. So great is the sense of impending crisis that the Kiribati government recently purchased a 6,000-acre tract in neighboring Fiji for agricultural, and perhaps future resettlement, purposes. Neighboring, that is, only in the sense that it one of the nearest significant landmasses in the Pacific Ocean: Fiji lies some 2,100 miles to the southwest, and is facing its own environmental and social crises for many of the same reasons as Kiribati.

Teitiota’s claims of the potential for harm on returning to Kiribati are not, then, without basis. But in order to qualify as a refugee under the UN’s Refugee Convention, a person must fear persecution upon returning home. Teitiota’s legal team attempted a novel tact: they argued that Teitiota was being “persecuted passively” by the environment. Furthermore, they argued, Teitiota could reasonably be thought to suffer from human persecution as well, because “climate change is believed to be caused by the pollution humans generate” – a proposition supported by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last year.

Teitiota’s lawyer argued that the international community’s refugee laws are outdated. “The refugee convention which came into effect at the end of the Second World War needs to be changed, to incorporate people who are fleeing climate catastrophe,” he told Radio New Zealand.

Kiribati is just one of a number of island nations whose existences are threatened by rising seas, among them the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and Tokelau. The world’s oceans have risen an average of 3.2 millimeters each year since 1970, a rate that is expected to accelerate; scientists theorize that seas could rise by more than one meter by the end of the century.

The future of the Maldives, a nation of 338,000 that lies 250 miles off the southwest coast of India, looks much like that of Kiribati. The former Maldivian president, Mohamed Nasheed, has become a kind of self-appointed emissary on this count, traveling the globe to raise awareness of the Maldives’s plight. Given the combined effects of rising seas, overfishing, pollution, and overreliance on a tourist industry that might well vanish as waves wash away the white sand beaches and corrals bleach and die in acidified seas, Nasheed has put the odds of his grandchildren inheriting an inhabitable Maldives at 50–50.

It is not just a matter of rising seas. Another phenomenon linked to global warming might prove even more catastrophic: the rise of extreme weather events. Adding to the problem is the fact that more people around the world are moving to coastal areas, where they are more at risk of severe disasters like typhoons. In 2003, 3 billion people lived within 200 kilometers of a coastline; by 2025, this number is likely to double.

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank predicted that given the combined effects of losses to agriculture, fisheries, and tourism, the GDPs of Pacific island nations stand to decline by 15% by 2100. One of the first researchers to highlight the threats of dramatic sea level rise, Jodi Jacobson, drew on worst case scenarios about sea levels in 1988 to predict that there might be six times as many environmental refugees as political refugees in the coming years.

The UN’s high commissioner for refugees has called climate change–related displacement “the defining challenge of our time.”

The Gilbert Islands, Kiribati. Courtesy Charly W. Karl / Flickr

The Gilbert Islands, Kiribati. Courtesy Charly W. Karl / Flickr

Which brings us back to Iaone Teitiota’s argument for refugee status: that he is in fact being persecuted by other people, because climate change, with its resultant disasters for Kiribati, is a manmade effect, as the IPCC suggested in its report. Looking at this more closely, we can understand the argument another way. Teitiota, as a resident of a low-lying island nation all but doomed by global warming, is facing persecution at the hands of the residents of countries producing the CO2 that caused the climate change in the first place – no small claim when the world’s top 6 emitters contribute 64% of annual emissions. That is, significant CO2 producers in developed nations are persecuting non-major CO2 producers in the developing world who will suffer adverse effects as a result of emissions, and thus are subsequently responsible, in the case of New Zealand, for providing people like Teitiota and his family with a new, safer home: a kind of refugeeism as loss and damage. The New Zealand High Court rejected this argument, but more, it seems, on the grounds of insufficient jurisdiction than anything else.

Is the existing UN Refugee Convention insufficient to cover the needs of today’s world? If we open the door to environmental refugees, can we put in appropriate controls to protect the rights of host countries? One of the New Zealand judge’s rationales for denying asylum was that Teitiota’s position “does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national,” meaning that to grant him asylum would mean potentially granting it to all citizens of Kiribati, and indeed to all people who could demonstrate that their homes and livelihoods were endangered by climate change. If asylum were to be granted, Judge Priestley wrote, “at a stroke, millions of people who are facing medium-term economic deprivation, or the immediate consequences of natural disasters or warfare, or indeed presumptive hardships caused by climate change, would be entitled to protection under the Refugee Convention.” Judge Priestley demurred, stating that it is not the place of the New Zealand High Court to make such a decision – rather it is one that must be made by the international community, and more specifically the United Nations.

We might consider environmental refugees a new type of stateless person, who are afforded substantial protections in international law under a 1954 UN convention. If Kiribati and the Maldives have ceased to be habitable, as predictions hold they will in the coming decades, have the nations of Kiribati and the Maldives ceased to exist? There are other possibilities: we saw that the Kiribati government purchased land in Fiji to grow food, with the quiet suggestion that the land might serve as a new base for Kiribati residents should their current home become unlivable. The Kiribati government has also reportedly talked with a Japanese firm “about the possibility of constructing a floating island,” a Waterworld-esque possibility that is very much in vogue with today’s technocrats, and which would cost in the billions of dollars. (Kiribati has a GDP of $176 million.) Or should it be the case – will it be the case, as there is no indication that the threats these islands face will abate in the foreseeable future – that those forced by environmental changes to leave their homes over the coming decades take on new national identities? Even within the Kiribati government, views on this issue are divided. Rimon Rimon, a government spokesman, suggested that the government’s resources would be better spent teaching citizens the professional skills they will need to thrive in new homes abroad. It seems that the international community will be forced to make a decision about the validity and status of environmental refugees soon enough: others have submitted pleas for asylum as environmental refugees before, though none has been successful, and many more are sure to do so in the coming years as seas rise, storms intensify, and populations grow.

As for Ioane Teitiota? He is appealing the New Zealand High Court’s decision. Should that fail, “the family hopes an appeal to the Immigration Minister or the public is more successful.”

The Warsaw Mechanism: Loss and damage at the UN

By Claire McNear, on 10 March 2014

By Claire McNear

Wreckage from Typhoon Haiyan.

Wreckage from Typhoon Haiyan.

On November 23 of last year, the United Nations’ annual climate change conference, known as the Conference of the Parties, concluded in Warsaw. COP-19, as this round was called, was widely regarded as a failure, with The Guardian eulogizing it with a column titled “How rich countries dodged the climate change blame game in Warsaw,” writing, “By virtue only of the fact the meeting actually went ahead and that all the countries have agreed to turn up again in Peru next December, it was a stepping-stone of sorts,” and adding that “[t]he steps in Warsaw towards a new climate change deal looked more like shuffling of feet.”

The Warsaw talks opened just four days after Typhoon Haiyan made landfall in the Philippines. The cyclone’s winds were the strongest ever recorded in a typhoon; the storm and resulting damage have been blamed for more than 6,000 deaths in the Philippines, with the total cost of damages and rebuilding estimated at $5.8 billion. The Filipino delegate, Yeb Sano, addressed the opening session of COP-19 near tears, begging his fellow delegates to “stop this madness” and noting that it had been just a year since Typhoon Bopha, a Category 5 super typhoon that claimed nearly 2,000 lives in the Philippines and caused more than $1 billion in damages, and which was then thought to be a once-in-a-generation disaster. Sano pledged to fast throughout the COP “until a meaningful outcome is in sight.” He received a standing ovation.

There were high hopes that COP-19 might yield substantive commitments to help nations affected by extreme weather events, widely considered a symptom of global climate change. These events include what are termed “sudden-onset” disasters – hurricanes, cyclones, floods – as well as “slow-onset” events, such as droughts that cause desertification. The world has seen a dramatic increase in the incidence of both types of events over the last two decades; a landmark report last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the first time directly attributed global warming and many of its resultant ecological effects to human activity.

Together, the effects of these sudden- and slow-onset events are referred to as “loss and damage.” Many nations, the Philippines not least among them, entered COP-19 intent on establishing measures to offset loss and damage – a formalized mechanism to guarantee immediate disaster relief as well as funding for the development of infrastructure, like floodwalls and early warning systems, to lessen vulnerability to future disasters and help states adjust to longer-term problems like rising seas.

There have been such hopes before: the Green Climate Fund was established at 2009’s COP-15 in Copenhagen to accomplish just this sort of international disaster relief. Wealthy nations promised to deliver $100 billion by 2020, with $10 billion a year coming in for the three years beginning in 2011. None of this money has materialized. After fractious debate on this point at last year’s COP-18, many observers expected action in Warsaw.

Progress on these issues has been stymied by the unusual framework of the COP negotiations. At 1992’s UN Earth Summit, one of the first international conferences to seriously address climate change, participating nations were divided into two groups: Annex I, consisting of states which were then members of the OECD as well as several “economies in transition” including Russia, and non-Annex I, all other states. The idea at the time was that Annex I was made up of wealthy, industrialized nations that would lead the way on fighting climate change and reducing CO2 emissions, while the poorer and less economically developed non-Annex I countries – what we might think of now as the developing world – would do what they could according to their own judgment of their capabilities. This binary between developed and developing countries – as defined in 1992 – remains locked in place today, with non-Annex I developing countries for the most part exempt from any requirements to curb emissions or contribute to relief programs like the Green Climate Fund.

Much of the bitterness in international climate change negotiations stems from the fact that wealthy, industrialized nations have historically contributed – and in many cases continue to contribute – the vast majority of emissions en route to their wealth and industrialization. There has been a 40% increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution, and today’s top six emitters (counting the European Union as one) account for 64% of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to the UN. For smaller and poorer countries like Kiribati and Tuvalu whose CO2 contributions are negligible but who now face existential threats from rising seas, the particular injustice is that even as rich countries contribute most to climate change, they are almost uniformly the countries best proofed against adverse climate change events, whether through natural geography or superior infrastructure and ability to respond to disasters at home.

The wealthy Annex I nations have for the most part denied that they should be responsible for a disproportionate amount of loss and damage contributions, pointing to countries like China and India, which are both classified as non-Annex I developing nations under the COP framework – a categorization that made far more sense in 1992 than it does in 2014 – and thus exempt from many of the more demanding requirements, even as they contribute roughly 23% and 5% of current global emissions, respectively. (“Demanding,” of course, is a relative term in climate negotiations, as extraordinarily little of what has been agreed to, most notably in 1997 in Kyoto, has actually been enacted, whether in terms of emission reductions or aid to developing nations. However, as the effects of climate change have dramatically worsened over the last decade, with international scientific consensus about its causes amassing alongside catastrophes like Typhoon Haiyan, there is a growing sense at meetings like the COP summits that something must finally be done, and soon.) When it comes to loss and damage contributions, rich countries are loath to commit to providing financial relief of unspecified magnitude over an unspecified period of time, particularly when the consensus is that climate problems are only going to get worse – and perhaps dramatically so – in the foreseeable future.

Still, some progress was made in Warsaw. In response to the Green Climate Fund’s nonexistent funding, COP-19 produced only a resolution about beginning the “initial resource mobilization process” next year, which the BBC praised as winner of “a global prize for vagueness.” However, after a walkout was staged by developing countries over the lack of progress on loss and damage issues, a potentially effective international instrument was created in the form of the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage, which will establish a fund to help poorer states deal with both “extreme events and slow onset events.”

In theory, the Warsaw Mechanism will succeed where the Green Climate Fund failed, committing rich nations not just to speedier financial support but to the sharing of data and technology that might mediate the effects of climate change. And yet many worry that its vague wording will condemn it to failure as well: India’s The Hindu noted that “almost all developed countries had made clear that there was no hope of them committing either to a timeline for delivery of promised funds at Warsaw.”

As for the Filipino delegate, he broke his fast at the conclusion of the COP, though he noted, as he prepared for a first meal of vegetable juice, that the conference had failed to produce “the kind of outcome I thought would have been meaningful.”

The 2014 State of the Union: A new era of American restraint abroad?

By Claire McNear, on 29 January 2014

By Claire McNear

In last night’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama appeared to signal the advent of a less aggressive American grand strategy, saying that the nation “must move off a permanent war footing.”

Arguing that American security “cannot depend on…military alone,” Obama said that he “will not send our troops into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary, nor will I allow [them] to be mired in open-ended conflicts.”

By all accounts, it’s been a tough year for Obama – he has faced intense scrutiny for everything from the NSA and PRISM revelations to the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The annual State of the Union address is a rare opportunity for the commander in chief to dictate conversation, and, to some extent, subsequent policy debate. For Obama, this might have been his last real chance to do so – by next January, national attention will have shifted to the contest for Obama’s successor (indeed, some are out of the gate early, however strangely). The 2015 speech will come nearly three months after the midterm elections, which is often when you start hearing the words “lame duck” murmured in dark Capitol corners.

State of the Union addresses typically focus largely on domestic affairs – and this one did, highlighting education issues and the financial recovery, with some of the night’s biggest applause coming after announcing a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage – though they can serve as a springboard for foreign policy. See, for instance, George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, which (in)famously laid out the so-called “Axis of Evil” – Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – which Bush credited, along with “their terrorist allies,” with “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” That speech served as a cornerstone of the philosophical justification of the War on Terror, and, a year later, of the US-sponsored invasion of Iraq.

Obama used last night’s speech to reinforce the idea of a new, quieter era of American foreign policy. In discussing Iran, which recently reached a short-term agreement with the international community to cease uranium enrichment in exchange for the easing of economic sanctions, Obama applauded the virtues of diplomatic negotiation over force. “For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed,” he said, adding that the success of the Iranian agreement would mean the resolution of “one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war.” Though much has happened (and not happened) since then, this is the same leader who said in 2007 that as president he would “engage in aggressive personal diplomacy” with Iran, and sit down with Iranian leaders (among others) without preconditions.

Still, Obama made a point last night of saying that there are limits to any diplomatic overtures – he will readily use force where American national security is threatened, and this may be the fatal flaw of any quieter strategy. “As commander in chief,” he said, “I have used force when needed to protect the American people, and I will never hesitate to do so as long as I hold this office.”

Protection of the American people remains a fuzzy objective; shortly after hinting at a new international reticence, Obama laid out a wide-ranging list of international items that will “help promote [America’s] long-term security,” among them democracy-building in Tunisia and Burma and support of American allies in the Asia-Pacific.

The latter goal has been a tricky one for the United States over the last year, as tensions flared between China, Japan, and South Korea. In 2011, the Obama Administration and State Department signaled a policy shift in the Asia-Pacific region: the United States would redouble its diplomatic efforts there (i.e. away from the Middle East), more or less as a response to Chinese economic and military growth. This strategy was originally referred to as a “pivot” to Asia, though government and military officials now use the softer “rebalance” instead, which some have worried signals a similar softening of commitment to Asian allies. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Sheila A. Smith was quick to note that last night’s State of the Union failed to address either a pivot or a rebalance – instead, she wrote, just plans to “continue to pursue American interests.”

Does Obama’s speech mean we will see a more restrained America? According to a recent Pew survey, an incredible 52% of Americans said they believe “that the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” (this number usually falls between 20 and 40%). Outright isolationism is rather unlikely, to put it mildly, but Obama seemed to understand that his audience last night was war-weary: he noted that all US troops have left Iraq, with another 60,000 back from Afghanistan.

American restraint is, perhaps, relative. Some 37,500 American troops remain in Afghanistan today along with a smaller cohort of NATO and other international partners; an agreement sent before Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai (which officials say he may well reject) would leave 10,000 American troops in the country after the end of this year, when the NATO mission officially concludes. And while the last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, the US Embassy in Baghdad retains a staff of nearly 6,000, and thousands more American contractors remain in the country.

Still, we can take President Obama’s speech as an indication that the United States of 2014 is serious about a commitment to diplomacy over force wherever possible. The recent diplomatic détente with Iran may come to be one of the greater foreign policy victories of the Obama White House. In his speech, Obama directly threatened Congressional Republicans, who have been making noise about disrupting the Iran negotiations by introducing a new sanctions bill. Obama’s eagerness to use diplomacy, coupled with an American public dreaming of an era of isolationism, could signal a new era of American restraint.

Also of note:

– Also mentioned was Guantanamo Bay, the United States’ 12-year-old exercise in illegal detention and public condemnation, with Obama calling for this to be the year that the prison is finally closed. The President promised to close the prison within a year of taking office in January 2009; 155 detainees remain imprisoned as of this month.

– Obama stopped just short of criticizing Russia for its recent anti-gay statements and policies. “[W]e believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” he said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” This received raucous applause, but seemed not to get quite where it meant to – Team USA’s official White House delegation, of which the President and First Lady will not be a part, features two openly gay athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow. As the delegation was personally selected by President Obama, their inclusion has been widely viewed as a rebuke of Russia, where President Vladimir Putin has urged gay visitors to “leave kids alone,” whilst the mayor of Sochi has declared that there are no homosexuals in the city. So we can see the latter bit of Obama’s comments as meant to be less about the glory of manly sports, and more about reminding his Russian counterpart that Team USA will be bringing along red, white, and blue as part of a wider spectrum.