How should governments treat people who are forced to migrate due to climate change? That question is on the working agenda for the upcoming Paris climate talks, at least sort of — and that’s a good thing. As it stands, there’s no clear definition of what, exactly, a forced climate migrant is; nor is there an international legal framework to deal with the mass movement of people (and, sooner than you might think, entire nations) displaced because of global warming. Paris could go a long way toward further recognizing the phenomenon, as well as helping to shape how to deal with it. If it doesn’t, some of the world’s most vulnerable people will remain in a bizarre legal and political limbo.
The United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention governs who is deemed a refugee, and what rights they’re afforded as a result. It explicitly protects people who have a “wellfounded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion,” and who have traveled outside of their country of origin. That means that the people we sometimes call “climate refugees,” who flee their country because of sudden environmental disasters, aren’t covered. Sixty-four years after the treaty was signed, it has proven inadequate to handle the devastating ramifications of global warming — which makes sense, since it wasn’t designed to address them. Its authors couldn’t foresee that the global community might someday need to figure out how to protect people whose small island states are disappearing because of rising sea levels — people like Angua Erika and Ioane Teitiota.