The Canaries in the Climate System: Melting Arctic Glaciers and Flooded Island States

By: Signe Veierud Busch

PDF Version: The Canaries in the Climate System, Melting Arctic Glaciers and Flooded Island States

Chronicle written in connection with the 9th Arctic Frontiers conference “Climate and energy”, Tromsø 2015.

Are you dreaming about romantic walks along the beaches of the Maldives? A private bungalow with a staircase straight down into the warm ocean, where tiny, colourful fishes swim around the poles which support the bungalow? Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t wait too long!

This week, for the ninth time, the Arctic Frontiers conference takes place in Tromsø, Norway. The conference is a unique forum which brings academia, government and business together to create a firmer foundation for decision-making and sustainable economic development in the Arctic. The theme of this years’ conference is “Climate and energy”, and the background for the chosen theme is that the Arctic experiences the impacts of climate change more and faster than other parts of the globe. I do not disagree with that. The impacts of climate change may be more evident in the high north, with wetter and wilder weather and melting sea- and land ice.

The most severe and immediate consequences are however found in the south. A number of Small Island States are in danger of being flooded and disappear, like a modern Atlantis.  

The global sea level rose 19 cm in the 20th century. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by the end of the 21st century, the sea level will rise an additional 18-59 cm. This is only an average estimate, and local conditions will contribute to larger variations in sea level. However, a new study from Harvard University  suggests that scientists overestimated the rate of sea level rise between 1901 and 1990. This means that the acceleration in the global sea level between 1990 and today has been significantly larger than scientists previously thought. Sea level rise has dramatic consequences. Small islands communities, even entire States, are in danger of being completely flooded. And the States who are not entirely flooded may become uninhabitable due to their fresh water supplies being contaminated by salt water. Enormous areas of low-lying deltaic States will be flooded, impacting infrastructure, fisheries, agriculture and tourism. The consequences of sea level rise are reinforced by other climate changes. (Rayfuse 2009, Rayfuse 2010, McAdam, J.: Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law, Oxford University Press, New York, 2012).

There are a number of examples of particularly vulnerable States: The Marshal Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau, and probably the most famous: the Maldives. For the roughly 512 000 inhabitants of these five States, the future is extremely insecure.

The local population will be forced to flee from their homes. As long as they relocate within the borders of their own State, they are considered to be internal refugees. This means that their own government is still responsible for their well-being. But what happens when climate refugees are forced to flee across borders?  When we talk about refugees, what first comes to mind are people who are escaping from war in their homeland. A refugee may claim a number of rights under the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, for example the right to work, housing and education, the right to public relief and assistance, access to courts, freedom of religion and movement. But in order for a person to be considered a refugee, that person must establish that he or she is forced to flee because of a threat of persecution and because they lack the protection of their own country. Even though it may feel like it case law suggests that no one can be persecuted by climate change or sea level rise. For example in Teitota v Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (2013) the New Zealand High Court rejected the application of two Kiribati citizens for asylum due to the effects of climate change in their homeland. The High Court ruled that the two could not be granted refugee status: they did not fit the definition of a refugee as they were not directly persecuted. Accordingly, so-called climate refugees do not exist. Rather, they are considered as migrants.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees acknowledges that the reasons for displacement today are far more complex than those envisaged under the 1951 Convention, and that the distinction between refugees and migrants is becoming increasingly blurred. He also observes that the salinization of ground water and soil, rising sea levels and climate change can contribute to the displacement of people across international frontiers, admitting that the relevant international instruments are silent on these groups of people. As long as they do not enjoy protection under the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, the so-called climate refugees are in a legal vacuum. Should the UN’s refugee definition be altered to adapt to the new trends? Or would the adoption of a brand new body of rules which, amongst others, regulates the position of climate refugees be a better strategy?

It is not sufficient to only discuss the legal position of climate refugees. What happens with the States they are fleeing from? Statehood is commonly defined by four elements; a defined territory, a permanent population, an effective government and the capacity to enter into relations with other States. Whilst all four criteria are needed for a State to come into existence, it is timely to ask if a State ceases to exist if any of the four are lacking. Although there is a strong presumption of continuity for existing States, it is doubtful whether a State may still exist if its entire territory is flooded and its population is scattered in other countries. May climate refugees eventually be considered stateless?

The current focus on Arctic climate change is highly relevant beyond the Arctic frontiers. Scientists ask us to observe and consider the Arctic glaciers as the canaries in the climate system. Canaries were used as emergency alarms in coalmines in the 19th and 20th century. The miners would carry the caged canaries down into the mine tunnels with them. If the canary stopped singing, it meant dangerous gases were leaking into the mine, and the miners would have to evacuate. The same has been said about the small island States: The Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tokelau are the 21st century canaries.

Let us return, for a moment, to romantic walks along the white beaches of the Maldives, with colourful, aquarium-like fish nibbling on your feet, a gentle breeze in the palm trees, and refreshing umbrella drinks… If this type of romantic beach holiday appeals to you and your partner’s senses, then GO – before the canary stops singing. However, if you have not yet succeeded in persuading your partner that this romantic experience trumps gambling in Las Vegas or hiking in the mountains, I can help you decide between the remaining alternatives: skip the long flight and opt for the presumably more environmentally friendly mountain hike. After all, perhaps it will prolong the canary’s song for the Maldives just a little bit longer. Happy holiday planning!

This post may be cited as: Signe Veierud Busch, “The Canaries in the Climate System: Melting Arctic Glaciers and Flooded Island States” (January 22, 2015), on-line:

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