The Silent Catastrophe: The Future for Small Island Nations Battling the Perils of Climate Change

Small island nations, the picturesque tourist havens, are encountering escalating threats from rising sea levels in an ongoing battle with climate change.[1] Amidst the beauty of these dream getaway destinations lies a grim reality – climate-induced displacement of indigenous communities is transforming these paradises into battlegrounds as refugees seek safer shelter.[2] The absence of an international legal framework addressing climate change-induced displacement remains a necessity.[3]

Since the 1990s, CO₂ emissions have surged by 37 percent, with global warming projected to reach 3.5 degrees by the end of the twenty-first century.[4] Although their contribution to global CO₂ emissions is minimal, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change.[5] The 2023 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlights a crucial issue, emphasizing that SIDS and nations in the South Pacific are disproportionally affected relative to their small populations.[6]

Climate and weather extremes are increasingly driving displacement, and SIDS are facing recurring natural disasters, such as king tides and massive cyclones.[7] The adverse impacts of climate change increasingly influence the decision of many islanders to uproot their lives in search of safer conditions and better life prospects, contributing directly to the migration of thousands of people in SIDS in the last decade alone.[8] Displacement jeopardizes the food security, water accessibility, and overall livelihoods of these individuals.[9]

Over the past decade, four Fijian villages were compelled to relocate because of rising seas, extreme storm surges, and coastal erosion.[10] Tuvalu, a Polynesian island that ranks as the fourth smallest nation globally, with a population of just 11,000, is predicted to be uninhabitable in 50 to 100 years.[11] Destructive cyclones can be catastrophic to SIDS.[12] In 2015, Tropical Cyclone Pam ravaged Tuvalu, demolishing homes, farmlands, and livelihoods, while displacing 45 percent of the island’s population.[13] The aftermath of Tropical Cyclone Pam emphasizes the urgent need for international action to address climate-induced displacement and bolster the resilience of vulnerable island nations, like Tuvalu.

Now, a pressing necessity emerges: more developed countries must open their doors to refugees escaping the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis.[14] Ioane Teitiota, a native of Kiribati, illustrates the many challenges climate refugees encounter.[15] In 2010, Teitiota sought refuge in New Zealand as the effects of encroaching sea levels in Kiribati’s capital, Tarawa, caused unstable living conditions and a scarcity of fresh water.[16] “Inhabitable land on Tarawa has eroded, resulting in a housing crisis and land disputes that have caused numerous fatalities.”[17]  Teitiota applied for refugee status, citing his concerns about the rising sea levels and associated environmental degradation in Kiribati, which he feared would compel the island’s inhabitants to flee.[18] However, his application was promptly denied.[19] Upon appeal to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, Teitiota’s appeal was dismissed because he did not meet the criteria for refugee status under the Refugee Convention or qualify as a protected person under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[20] Specifically, Teitiota’s counsel contended that he deserved refugee status as an internally displaced person, to which the Tribunal responded that such individuals do not meet the definition of a refugee.[21] Furthermore, the Tribal considered Teitiota’s migration to be voluntary.[22] Despite acknowledging the danger that climate change poses to the right to life, the Human Rights Council determined that his deportation was not unlawful due to the absence of an immediate threat to Teitiota’s life.[23]

Teitiota’s case underscores the necessity for global acknowledgment of the catastrophe confronted by small island nations amid the climate crisis.[24] Several legal initiatives, such as the Paris Agreement, have been established to tackle climate change.[25] The Paris Agreement aims to enhance the global response to climate change by limiting the global temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. [26]

Australia has already taken significant initiatives to assist the islands.[27] During the 2022 Pacific Islands Forum, a regional body comprising eighteen diverse countries, Australia and Tuvalu, announced their intention to form the “Falepili Union.”[28] Within this agreement, Australia pledged to grant residency, work, and study rights to up to 280 Tuvalu citizens annually due to the threat of climate change, while committing to funding coastal adaptation projects and responding to major natural disasters.[29]

Australia’s proactive stance in assisting island nations is certainly an admirable step forward in confronting the pressing challenges of climate change.[30] However, other countries must follow suit and undertake similar initiatives.[31] Navigating the intersection of climate change, soaring ocean levels, and the future of island nations demands a holistic approach.[32] This involves international law recognizing the climate-induced refugee crisis and diplomatic and humanitarian efforts.[33] The international community must unite to combat climate change while ensuring displaced populations from vulnerable island nations find not just temporary refuge, but long-term solutions in the face of an uncertain climate future.[34]

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers, at 5 (2023),

[2] Id. at 6.

[3] Benoit Mayer, The International Legal Challenges of Climate-Induced Migration: Proposal for an International Legal Framework, 22 Colo. J. Env’tl. L. & Pol’y. 358, 369 (2011).

[4] Int’l Org. For Migration [IOM], Climate Change and Migration in Vulnerable Countries, at 23 (2019).

[5]  Id.

[6] IPCC, supra note 1, at 6.

[7] IPCC, supra note 1, at 6.; Int’l Org., supra note 4, at 23.

[8] IOM, supra note 4, at 23, 25.

[9] G.A. Res. 77/276, at 2 (Apr. 4, 2023).

[10] Annah Piggott-McKellar, Karen Elizabeth McNamara, & Patrick D. Nunn, Fiji’s Climate Change Refugees: Four Communities Have Already Had to Relocate- and More Are Set to Follow, Newsweek (Apr. 30, 2019, 5:56 AM),

[11] Ian Falefuafua Tapu, Finding Fonua: Disappearing Pacific Island Nations, Sea Level Rise, and Cultural Rights, 62 Ariz. L. Rev. 786, 792 (2020).

[12] Mosheen Riaz Ud Dean, “Climate Tragedy: If We Drown Tuvalu, We Drown the Entire World”, United Nations Development Programme [UNDP] (May 4, 2020),

[13] Id.

[14] See Dean, “Climate Tragedy: If We Drown Tuvalu, We Drown the Entire World”, supra note 12.

[15] Hum. Rts. Comm., at 2, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/127/D/2728/2016 (2020).

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Ioane Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, Case No. SC 7/2015, Judgment, ¶ 5 (NZSC July 20, 2015).

[19] Id. at ¶ 6.

[20] Id.

[21] AF (Kiribati) [2013] NZIPT 800413, at 12-13.

[22] Id. at 13.

[23] Hum. Rts. Comm., supra note 14, at 7.

[24] Id.

[25] Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Dec. 12, 2015, T.I.A.S. No. 16-1104.

[26] Id. at 3.

[27] Kaly Ober & Katherine Waters, Pacific Island Nations Seek Solutions Outside of COP28, U.S. Inst. Of Peace (Nov. 28, 2023).

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] See id.

[31] See Sameh Shoukry & Amy E. Pope, Justice for Climate Migrants, Project Syndicate (Nov. 28, 2023),

[32] Id.

[33] Mayer, supra note 7, at 407.

[34] Id. at 369.