This is the question that was posed – on a much larger scale – between Australia and its neighbouring country Tuvalu. On November 10th, Australia announced that it would begin welcoming Tuvaluans fleeing from the devastating effects of rising sea levels and climate-fuelled storms on their homes and infrastructure.
Under the agreement, 280 Tuvaluans will be able to move to Australia each year and will be given a special pathway to citizenship. This partnership between the two nations is based on the “traditional values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect,” and was created at the request of Tuvalu.
However, given Tuvalu’s population of 11,000, at the proposed rate it would take 40 years for all Tuvaluans to be granted passage. While it is a significant first step, it’s worth noting that the number may not be high enough as climate impacts get worse.
A MODERN DAY ATLANTIS
Tuvalu, a South Pacific country made up of nine low-lying islands, is particularly vulnerable to the worsening impacts of climate change. Current projections from NASA’s Sea Level Change Team show that a large portion of the country’s most important infrastructure is at risk of being underwater by 2050.
But far from being a problem for the future, daily life in Tuvalu is already greatly affected.
For example, the salt carried inland by rising sea levels poisons farmland, making it more and more difficult for Tuvaluans to grow their crops, while rising ocean temperatures damage the coral reefs that are home to the fish that are vital to their diets. And frequent flooding already puts important infrastructure – like the airport runway – under water several times a year.
Nearly every aspect of life in Tuvalu is at risk today, and that risk is only expected to increase as time goes on. In fact, the situation is urgent enough that Tuvaluan Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga has compared his country to a modern-day Atlantis – at risk of disappearing forever below the sea.
OPENING OUR DOORS TO OUR GLOBAL NEIGHBOURS
This partnership between Australia and Tuvalu that resulted in last week’s announcement is significant in its own right, but it also represents a situation that more and more countries around the world will be facing in the coming years.
A 2020 report by the Institute of Economics and Peace showed that there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees from over 140 countries by 2050. 2050 may seem far off to some, but as in the case of Tuvalu, this is not a crisis of the future but of the present.
According to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, in 2020 alone, 30 million people facing weather and climate hazards were displaced within their own countries. And as with all aspects of climate change, this displacement is impacting the most vulnerable communities first and hardest.
Recognizing the urgency of this situation, many are calling for countries like the US and Canada – which does not currently recognize climate migrants – to explore the ways in which it can help welcome people whose homes have been made unlivable by climate change.
A 2021 report from the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) called on the federal government to be better prepared for the people who will be seeking refuge from climate impacts in the years to come. The recommendations included expanding applications based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, pointing to the precedents set by the country after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
The report also pushed for the expansion of the sponsorship program that had previously allowed Canadians to sponsor people fleeing from the war in Syria – only this time for those fleeing devastating climate impacts.
Opening our doors to our global neighbours isn’t just the right thing to do. As time goes on and as climate fuels more droughts, floods, extreme heat, and storms around the world, welcoming climate migrants will be a matter of life and death for millions of people.
ADDRESSING THE ROOT CAUSE
While preparing to welcome climate migrants will be a crucial step towards safety for millions, it’s only part of the equation. Industrialized nations must at the same time take urgent action to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that create the conditions for displacement in the first place.
For many people like the Tuvaluans, their culture and their identity is deeply tied to the land in which they live. Being forced to leave threatens that connection. As a result, some see a strategy that only focuses on relocation as a band-aid solution that does nothing to address the root causes of displacement, and causes further harm to impacted communities.
Before last week’s agreement, Prime Minister Sopoaga himself had long cautioned that leaving their homelands should be a last resort. In 2019 he said, “Moving outside of Tuvalu will not solve any climate change issues … If you put these people in the middle of industrialized countries it will simply boost their consumptions and increase greenhouse gas emissions,” and, “I believe we still have time to make this island very attractive, very beautiful, and continue to be inhabited by generations of Tuvaluans to come.”
The current agreement does take this into consideration, with Australia committing to add more funding to Tuvalu’s Coastal Adaptation Project. The goal of this project is to expand land around the main island by about six per cent, with the hopes of allowing Tuvaluans to remain in their homeland.
THE TASKS AHEAD
While for some of us the idea of our homes and communities becoming unlivable due to climate change seems like a far off threat, for the countless millions of our neighbours who live on the front lines of the climate crisis, this is their current reality. And as climate impacts worsen around the world, so will the number of people who have to leave their homes because of them.
There are two main tasks in front of us: we need to be prepared – like any good neighbour – to open our doors to those who are losing their homes and the lives they know to climate change.
At the same time, those who are most responsible for driving the increasing climate impacts around the world need to take urgent action to slash the emissions that fuel them.
Those least responsible for climate change should not have to flee their homes because of it. But if they do, we need to be ready with open arms to welcome them into ours.