Acclimating to Climate Change: Filling the International Policy Void for Environmentally Displaced People

By Chirala, Sireesha V. | Houston Journal of International Law, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview
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Acclimating to Climate Change: Filling the International Policy Void for Environmentally Displaced People

Chirala, Sireesha V., Houston Journal of International Law


    A. What is Climate Change?
    B. Slow-Onset vs. Sudden Impact Disasters
    C. Visible Effects of Climate Change

    A. Migration Categories
    B. International Laws

    A. Internationally Agreed Definition--EDPs
    B. The Non-Refoulement Principle
    C. The Responsibilities of States



Even though the news programs say the worst is over, "your brain tells you that if this one happened, then other[s] will happen." (1) First there was the thunderous shake of the earthquake that lasted longer than usual and that shook everything into rubble. Then the main tsunami hit, submerging everything in sight. After that, "eight successive 'waves' came [o]nto the shore," each wave rushing in uncontrollable fear and "pull[ing] back with it more lives, buildings and hope." (2) Seeing, hearing, and smelling the destruction and decay all around, and feeling that another tremor will come at any time "mak[es] the loss worse." (3) Knowing the waves come from an aftershock of the earthquake creates the overwhelming "feeling that ... [any] tremor will simply get stronger, longer, and create ... another tsunami." (4) Will the water ever subside? How can we ever rebuild our homes, streets, and lives? Does the rest of the world even know our plight?

Weather-related natural disasters displace millions of people each year. (5) The number of people forced out of their homes will only escalate as climate change exacerbates global, environmental displacement. (6) Between 200 million and one billion people could be forced to leave their homes as a result of global warming within the next fifty years. (7) Initially the movement of environmentally displaced people has been temporary and has remained within the borders of their home country. (8) However, if an entire nation is threatened with the prospect of environmental destruction, displaced persons will have no choice but to seek permanent refuge elsewhere. (9) Therefore, it is imperative to account for the rights of the people who will lose their homes to impending environmental changes and destruction. (10)

Unfortunately, existing laws fail to address the issues that environmentally displaced people face. u Currently, "It]here is no agreed upon category or terminology to describe persons compelled to move because of climate or environmental change." (12) Many scholars have termed these migrants "environmental refugees" in an effort to emphasize the "involuntary nature of environmentally displaced persons' migration and the [complete] lack of resources available to ease their plight." (13) However, this is a misuse of the term "refugee." (14) Not only is refugee law ill-equipped to protect the interests of these displaced people, but other migratory frameworks and international laws do not completely cover those who are left without a home because of changes in environmental conditions. (15) Consequently, a new international framework is needed to repair the inadequacies of current laws and properly account for these migrants and their rights. (16)

This Comment discusses climate change, the problems it presents for international migration, and the need for a stronger international framework for dealing with environmentally displaced people. Part II outlines the developing environmental problems associated with climate change. Part III then discusses international law as it currently stands and illustrates its weaknesses and strengths in addressing the needs of environmentally displaced migrants. Finally, Part IV of the Comment concludes by proposing a new international agreement that pieces together features of current laws to accommodate the expected influx of forced migrants. (17)


A. What is Climate Change?

Climate change refers to the long-term shift in weather statistics, such as the average temperature and precipitation levels, that occur in a given place and time of year.

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Acclimating to Climate Change: Filling the International Policy Void for Environmentally Displaced People


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