Global Ethics Corner: When Your Island Sinks

Oct 9, 2009

By 2050 some estimate that climate change will displace 150 million people, but the displaced won't qualify as refugees under international law. What should be done about relocation?

By 2050 some estimate that climate change will displace 150 million people. Small islands contribute little to global carbon emissions, but natural disasters, flooding, and shoreline erosion could destroy infrastructure, disrupt agriculture, and leave them uninhabitable.

The President of Maldives, a developing state and island in the Indian Ocean, is looking for ways to relocate his entire population. Less than five feet above water, the Maldives' very existence is threatened by rising seas.

Similar disruption would occur along coastlines worldwide, including the Florida Everglades and Carolina barrier islands.

For the millions of potential international refugees, there is no mention of climate change under international law. Refugees displaced for environmental reasons won't qualify for food, shelter, or other resources, and neighbors won't be required to open their borders.

Indonesia offered to rent out territory to the displaced, but who will pay? Small island governments and citizens usually lack funds for relocation.

Perhaps industrialized countries could take refugees as a form of carbon credit? Perhaps those displaced should be compensated by the carbon emitters? Perhaps, the refugees' fate is simply the luck of the draw?

What do you think?

By Christina Madden

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