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Climate change threats are grounds for seeking asylum, U.N. says

Asylum seekers can typically appeal for sanctuary from any number of concerns, typically relating to a credible fear that they may be persecuted in their home country. Now, thanks to a landmark decision made by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, people pushed from their homeland by the effects of climate change have grounds to claim asylum status. The decision is not binding but assuming it is passed, it would provide the legal framework for victims of extreme weather events and a changing landscape that may threaten the housing situation of hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The initial ruling by the U.N. comes at a time when the need for this type of climate-related migration is growing — though people affected have been trying to seek this type of protection for years now. In its decision, published earlier this week, the committee highlighted the case of Ioane Teitiota, a man from Kiribati who sought asylum in New Zealand as a "climate refugee" in 2015. Teitiota's claim was denied by authorities in New Zealand and he deported back to his home to Kiribati, a Pacific Island nation where much of the population does not have access to clean drinking water and overcrowding caused by mass migration from other islands that were hit by rising sea levels has resulted in significant political strife. Kiribati is considered to be one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the effects of climate change, according to the World Bank. While Teitiota and others in the country don't face an immediate threat of losing their homes, the case made the U.N. consider the possibility that people may need to flee from worsening conditions in order to protect their livelihood and shouldn't have to wait until their homes are underwater to acknowledge that life in some areas may become untenable. For future claims to be accepted, people like Teitiota will have to show evidence that “the effects of climate change in receiving states may expose individuals to a violation of their rights.”

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Situations like the one Teitiota fears are unfortunately becoming more common. Last year, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) reported that more than seven million people were forced from their homes by floods, landslides, tornados and other natural disasters during the first six months of 2019. It is estimated that more than 22 million people were displaced by weather over the course of the year — a figure that would amount to the highest levels of weather-related displacement on record. These types of extreme weather events are becoming the primary reason for mass migration. According to the IDMC, about half as many people have been forced from their homes due to regional conflict and violence in the last year as have been pushed to move by weather-related conditions.

This type of migration is growing more common as more extreme weather events occur — a direct result of climate change. While individual storms typically cannot be linked to the warming of the planet, stronger and more frequent storms can be tied to the conditions of climate change. The United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has highlighted how the number of extreme storms increased significantly starting in the 1970s after remaining consistent prior to that. It happens that this was around the same time carbon emissions greatly exceeded historical levels — caused primarily by human forces. This has resulted in large fires becoming five times more common than they were 40 years ago and as much as a 70 percent increase in the amount of intense rainstorms in the last half century, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. According to a study published by environment-focused publication Carbon Brief 68 percent of extreme weather events in the last year were made more severe by human-caused climate change.

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It isn't just singular events like extreme storms that are devastating areas and forcing millions from their homes. Should we continue down the path we are on, coastal lands currently inhabited by hundreds of millions of people will disappear as sea levels rise. According to a study conducted by Climate Central and published in Nature Communications last year, rising tides from climate change could displace as many as 300 million people by the year 2050. Even if the numbers aren't so drastic, the result of mass migration caused by the destruction of coastlands is largely unavoidable. In 2018, NOAA reported that sea levels had risen for the seventh consecutive year — reaching 3.2 inches above the 1993 levels and marking the highest annual average on record. It's projected that we'll continue to see new record highs going forward — NOAA warned that water levels have consistently gone up for at least the last two decades and has started accelerating. Worst-case projections — assuming humans take no action to curb our emissions and limit the effects of climate change — suggest that we could see our sea levels rise by 6.6 feet. If humans get their act together and act drastically to curb the effects of climate change and limit the rise of the oceans, it is still expected that as many as 150 million people will be forced from their homes in the next 30 years — many coming from nations like Vietnam, Thailand ,and Indonesia and will require people to cross borders in order to reach safety.

Under the U.N.'s new proposed rules, victims of sudden, expected weather events like storms and those who are slowly pushed from their homes by occurrences like rising tides could seek asylum. This would be a welcome change for people like Teitiota and others who are facing significant disruption to their lives at the hands of climate change. The rules still have a way to go, but it is a step in the right direction. Nations will have to prepare themselves for the inevitability that hundreds of millions of people are going to be forced to move over the next several decades as existing areas become unviable. That process will require a considerable amount of infrastructure and organization to account for those affected and assure they have the necessary resources.

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While that may still be a way off, the U.N. decision could at least provide legal framework to ensure people will be able to take hold in new places. Victims of climate change should not be forced back to places where they will simply be forced to suffer and watch their homes be destroyed. It's an unfortunate reality, but one that every country bears responsibility for. Causing climate change was a group effort, primarily by developed nations, and dealing with the fallout will equally be their responsibility as people lose their homes and come looking for shelter.