Climate Refugees are Fleeing From an Inescapable Threat

    The Boe Declaration, published by the 49th Pacific Islands Forum in 2018, stated, “We reaffirm that climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific and our commitment to profess the implementation of the Paris Agreement.” According to a UN report, at least 57 percent of the infrastructure of the Pacific Islands will be threatened by rising sea levels during this century. Climate change is already affecting the Pacific, causing droughts, coral reef bleaching, more powerful storms, and the myriad problems caused by rising sea levels. In Australia, rising sea levels have caused the First Peoples who live on Zenadth Kes, also known as the Torres Strait Islands, to prepare for evacuations. Around 30,000 people from the Marshall Islands alone have already moved to the United States, mostly to Washington, Oregon, and California, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii. People from across the Pacific are already fleeing the effects of climate change, and the number will only grow. By the middle of the 21st century, scientists estimate that as many as 200 million people worldwide will be displaced. 

Despite these issues, it has become increasingly clear that the most powerful and wealthiest nations of the world are uninterested in dealing with the myriad effects of climate change in the Pacific. The Boe Declaration’s focus on the environment was even contested by Australia, which has one of the three largest armed forces in the Pacific alongside France and New Zealand. New Zealand’s government, in 2015, denied Ioane Teitiota’s claim for refugee status after he attempted to flee Kiribati due to the effects of climate change. The UN Human Rights Council upheld the decision, citing that the situation in Kiribati was “not yet dire enough that Teitiota and his family faced an imminent risk to their lives,” and the UN still does not recognize climate refugees or persons who are internally displaced due to climate. 

    No matter the UN’s rulings, many Pacific Islanders will still flee to Australia, New Zealand, or the west coast of the United States. At first, these regions seem like good choices; the Western US isn’t threatened by cyclones and the risk for sea level rise is low compared to other parts of the US and most Pacific Islands. However, as the record-breaking heatwave in the Pacific Northwest recently showed, it isn’t free from the effects of climate change. A researcher with the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute said that, though such a heatwave would still be a rare event in today’s climate, it was roughly 150 times more likely due human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. By 2040, with just another 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit of worldwide warming, a heatwave of that magnitude could be expected roughly every five to ten years. Seasonal wildfires and droughts have grown more severe, also due to climate change. 

    Many Marshallese climate refugees live in crowded, multi-generational homes that don’t have air conditioning and work outdoor jobs. During the recent heatwave, these immigrants often had to flee to cooling centers such as fire stations and libraries with air conditioning, but since many only have access to one car, being used by someone for work, transportation was also an issue. Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson, who came to the US from Saipan, fled to the coast from his new home in Spokane in order to escape the high temperatures. There were at least 116 heat-related deaths in Oregon and 57 more in Washington state, and officials are describing it as a “mass casualty event.” The Marshallese are only an example; all Pacific Islanders living in the United States are facing the same threats and disadvantages.

Climate change will, inevitably, cause an influx of refugees and displaced peoples into the northern hemisphere, which contains 68 percent of the Earth’s land. Those from Pacific Islands have already become the first to experience this migration. However, as Johnson says, “the most vulnerable to climate change will always be the most vulnerable, no matter if they can migrate or not. When a storm flattens your island and you have to take a job farming in Oregon, you are not any less vulnerable, since climate change is inescapable.” 

Clay Capra

Digital Journalist

Leave a Reply