As rising sea levels and extreme weather events increasingly batter Pacific Islands nations, New Zealand must consider its stance on potential climate change migrants. TEUILA FUATAI reports on a debate that will gain urgency as 2030 approaches.

Pelenise Alofa​ likes to challenge young I-Kiribati on climate change.

“We ask: ‘Anybody want to go to Australia and New Zealand? Anybody want to migrate or go to Japan or the US?’ All the hands are up. Everybody wants to move.

“And then I say: ‘Do you want to move permanently and not come back to Kiribati because of climate change?’ Then all the hands go down.”

Laughter is mixed into the next question.

“Then I say, so why do you want to move in the first place?”

“We want to travel,” Alofa says, echoing the voices of young I-Kiribati.

“We want to go and find good opportunities in other countries, but we don’t want Kiribati to disappear. We want to come back home, always.”

Alofa, the national co-ordinator for the Kiribati Climate Action Network, is describing the balancing act of living in a small Pacific nation on the frontline of the climate crisis.

In her 13 years of climate change and advocacy work, the country’s increasing vulnerability to rising seas and adverse weather events – particularly king tides and ocean acidification – has made it an international symbol for the disproportionate and devastating impacts of anthropogenic climate change on developing states. Among the heaviest impacts is the possibility residents will leave their ancestral lands the climate crisis make life untenable.

It is a scenario on the radar of nations across the Pacific.

A critical consideration is that New Zealand and Australia are not just the wealthiest, largest and nearest neighbours to threatened islands such as Kiribati, but also the major greenhouse gas emitters in the region.

Data from the World Bank shows Kiribati’s greenhouse gas emissions per capita were 0.56 tonnes in 2014. That amounted to just 0.07 per cent of New Zealand’s per capita emission total that year, and 0.03 per cent of Australia’s.

In New Zealand, the discussion tends to look at the possible impact of climate migration on our shores.

Will the rising seas force mass migration?

Central to New Zealand’s position is a 2018 cabinet paper, titled Pacific climate change-related displacement and migration: A New Zealand action plan.

The paper said action on Pacific climate migration was a long-term foreign policy approach, and prioritised mitigation initiatives within New Zealand and the wider Pacific. It referenced the overwhelming preference of Pacific people to continue life in their homelands.

The paper also acknowledged that extreme weather events like cyclones had already resulted in internal climate-related displacement in several countries – including Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. That could happen again “at any time” and even cause displacement across borders in severe cases.

Does that mean New Zealand should prepare for the possibility of an influx of climate change migrants from Pacific Islands? Could a severe cyclone season see families from Samoa or Vanuatu forcibly displaced, landing at Auckland Airport?

That’s highly unlikely, says University of Auckland PHD student Olivia Yates, whose research focuses on the impacts and attitudes of climate-related displacement from the Pacific.

“It is not a one-to-one relationship between climate change and migration,” she says.

As the effects of climate change vary significantly between Pacific countries, so do the way families, communities and leaders will respond, Yates says.

Overall, internal migration when homes and livelihoods are at risk is the most likely scenario. Migration between smaller Pacific Island nations also seems more probable than an immediate shift to New Zealand, however a variety of factors are likely to influence cross-border relocation, including community and familial links to a foreign place.

Many Pacific Islanders won’t want to leave their home nations, even when threatened by climate change, says University of Auckland researcher Olivia Yates.

Immediate problems of intensification and overcrowding in the urban centres of places such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands because of climate change impacts frame conversations around possible migration in those countries.

For nations such as Samoa, Fiji and Tonga – whose citizens constitute the bulk of New Zealand’s Pacific migrants – cross-border displacement because of climate change is rarely raised. Discussions and initiatives tend to focus on building resiliency to extreme weather events such as cyclones, which are expected to increase in severity due to climate change.

The costs associated with severe weather events are an important part of this because they provide one way of quantifying the exposure of these nations to the climate crisis. Cyclone Gita in 2018 provides an illustrative recent example. Damage from the category five storm in Tonga was widespread, with 80 per cent of residents affected. It was estimated to cost $260 million, equivalent to 38 percent of Tonga’s GDP.

Two years earlier, Cyclone Winston swept through the Pacific. It hit Fiji at its most violent. Forty-four people died and 30,000 homes were destroyed. Losses were estimated at $2.19 billion, equivalent to 31 per cent of Fiji’s GDP.

Our duty to clean up

Questions about climate change migration evoke a higher concept: climate justice.

Moral and ethical imperatives impose responsibility on high-emitter economies and developed nations, including New Zealand, to reduce emissions so temperature increases are limited to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, preferably less than 1.5C. Anything higher spells disaster for low lying atolls such as Kiribati, not to mention the economic difficulties Pacific nations face should more severe cyclone seasons roll through.

It also raises valid issues around adaptation versus mitigation of the climate crisis, and whether New Zealand should even be considering migration from its smaller, more vulnerable Pacific neighbours because of climate change when it can improve its own efforts to limit emissions.

Yates, whose research involves working with Auckland’s Tuvalu and I-Kiribati communities, is realistic about discussing and planning for possible migration due to climate change. She cites the case of I-Kiribati man Ioane Teitiota, who failed to successfully seek refuge in New Zealand when he said life in his homeland was no longer tenable due to climate change.

While it is important to understand the plight of Teitiota and his family, debate around possible climate migration cannot detract from New Zealand’s need to reduce its emissions, Yates argues.

“We know things are going to change, but we also know that a lot of people, given their rootedness and sense of belonging in the land, aren’t going to want to leave.”

Environmental lawyer Teall Crossen​ frames it as a responsibility under international law in her book The Climate Dispossessed – Justice for the Pacific in Aotearoa? Released this month, it looks at New Zealand’s historical and ongoing contribution to the climate crisis, the disproportionate impacts of that in Pacific nations, and why it is legally bound to rectify that.

Like Yates, she prefaces any possible discussion around climate migration from the Pacific with the need for New Zealand to reduce its emissions. Speaking with Stuff, Crossen brought up the possibility of a humanitarian visa category for climate change migration, which is also mentioned as a possible long-term approach in the 2018 Cabinet paper.

Crossen says an immigration-focused approach is wrong and risks minimising New Zealand’s responsibility as a “high-emitting nation” – a strong sentiment among Pacific Island nations.

“We are actually part of the reason that people in the Pacific are facing the risk of displacement. The idea that providing a climate change humanitarian visa was part of the solution… overlooked that Pacific people don’t necessarily want to come to New Zealand.

“The idea that we should offer it, in my view, is unjust. If we actually reduce our emissions than that conversation doesn’t need to happen,” she says.

Grounding New Zealand’s climate change response to its Pacific neighbours in an international legal framework makes it more difficult for New Zealand to minimise its role in reducing global emission levels.

Crossen uses a leaky ship analogy, noting that countries like New Zealand – each of which individually contribute less than one per cent of global emissions – collectively make up 25 per cent of the world’s total emissions.

“[There are] some really large leaks and some smaller leaks,” she explains. “Let’s say 25 per cent of the leaks are small, tiny even. Your berth is right next to one of the smaller leaks. There are gaping holes in other parts of the ship and water is coming in fast.

“It’s true – we really need to stop the large leaks. But it is also true that if all the tiny leaks aren’t plugged, the ship will eventually sink.”

Keep paradise viable

Under the current Government, efforts to build climate resilience within Pacific Island nations have become more targeted.

As part of that effort, a $150m Pacific climate help package was announced last year. In February, Jacinda Ardern said $2m of that would be dedicated to the relocation of Fijian communities struggling with climate problems such as rising seas.

Comments from Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters also suggest mitigation and adaptation within countries, rather than migration to New Zealand, is the main priority. He reiterated feedback from Pacific leaders on the importance of communities remaining in their own countries and retaining their social and cultural identity.

“Our assistance will focus on practical projects for climate change adaption, mitigation, and ways to avert climate displacement of people,” Peters said via email.

The New Zealand Government’s stance doesn’t quite draw a ringing endorsement.

“Well, I think New Zealand is better than Australia,” Alofa says slowly.

“I mean, your prime minister is pro-climate change, so that’s good. She’s been one of our campaigners for climate change. But whether that’s enough?

“We will never have enough in the islands.”