A man from one of the lowest-lying nations on the planet is attempting to persuade New Zealand judges that he is a refugee in need of asylum – not from persecution, but from climate change.
The 37-year-old man and his wife left the Pacific nation of Kiribati six years ago for higher ground and better prospects in New Zealand, but immigration authorities have twice rejected his argument that the rising sea levels make it too dangerous for him and his family – his three children were born in New Zealand – to return to Kiribati.
The man, whose name cannot be revealed due to a law that protects asylum seekers, is appealing the decision at New Zealand’s High Court where his attorney, Michael Kidd, will argue his case on Wednesday (late Tuesday EST).
Legal experts say the man’s appeal is a long shot, but it will be closely watched and could have implications for tens of millions of residents of low-lying islands around the world.
Kiribati, an impoverished string of 33 coral atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has about 103,000 people and has been identified by scientists as one of the nations that is most vulnerable to climate change. The country’s atolls have an average height above sea level of just 6.5 feet.
In a transcript of the immigration case obtained by the AP, the Kiribati man describes extreme high tides, known as king tides, that he says have started to regularly breach Kiribati's defenses - killing crops, flooding homes and sickening residents.
The man said that around 1998, king tides began regularly breaching the sea walls around his village, which was overcrowded and had no sewerage system. He said the fouled drinking water would make people vomit, and that there was no higher ground that would allow villagers to escape the knee-deep water.
He said returning to the island would endanger the lives of his two youngest children.
"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the tribunal, according to the transcript. "Especially for my children. There's nothing for us there."
The man's lawyer said the family is currently living and working on a New Zealand farm.
Tidal gauges indicate the world's oceans have been rising at an annual rate of 0.1 inches since 1970. An international panel of climate scientists issued a report earlier this month saying that it was "extremely likely" that human activity was causing global warming, and predicted that oceans could rise by as much as 3.3 feet by the end of the century. If that were to happen, much of Kiribati would simply disappear.
New Zealand's Immigration and Protection Tribunal has said the legal concept of a refugee is someone who is being persecuted, which requires human interaction, and that it was rejecting the man's claim because nobody is persecuting him.
The tribunal found there was no evidence that the environmental conditions on Kiribati were so bad that the man and his family would face imminent danger should they return. It also said the man's claim was rejected because the family's predicament was no different than that faced by the wider population of Kiribati.
In his court appeal, Kidd said the fact that many people face the same threat is no grounds to dismiss a claim. He also argued that his client did suffer an indirect form of human persecution because climate change is believed to be caused by the pollution humans generate. He said his client also would face the threat of a climate-induced breakdown in law and order should he return.
Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert and associate professor at the University of Auckland, said he applauded Kidd's "ingenious arguments" but didn't think they would succeed because his client hasn't been singled out and victimized due to something like his gender, race or political persuasion.
But Hodge added that even if the Kiribati man loses, his case might make a good argument for expanding the definition of what constitutes a refugee. He said he expected there would be increasing pressure on nations like New Zealand and Australia to help provide new homes for Pacific Islanders threatened by rising seas.
Kiribati's government is pursuing its own strategies. It has paid a deposit for 6,000 acres in nearby Fiji, which Kiribati President Anote Tong has said will provide food security and a possible refuge for future generations. The nation has also been talking with a Japanese firm about the possibility of constructing a floating island, which would cost billions of dollars.
Al Jazeera and wire services