Law reform and climate change

Publication Date 
27 November 2017

When as many as 1.75 million people who live in the Pacific region lose their homes to climate change, New Zealand will face a unique law reform challenge.

As part of the Law Commission’s internal seminar series, Legal and Policy Adviser, John-Luke Day, recently presented on the law reform issues arising from climate change. Among those issues is the question of how New Zealand responds when people in neighbouring countries lose land on to rising seas levels and more extreme weather.

John-Luke Day says New Zealand may need to develop a pre-emptive legal response to this issue before it becomes an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

For instance, one of New Zealand’s neighbours, Kiribati has a population of 110,000 people spread across 33 islands, none of which is more than three metres above sea level.

Sea levels rose nearly twenty centimetres in the last century. Scientists predict a best-case scenario of another half a metre rise in the next century.   For Kiribati, this means coastal erosion, agricultural fields inundated with seawater, and contaminated drinking water.

Kiribati’s government is already planning its evacuation – it has bought 6,000 acres of land in Fiji.  

New Zealand law does not allow people escaping climate change into New Zealand to claim refugee status.  In Teitiota v Chief Executive of the MBIE  [2014] NZCA 173, [2014] NZAR 688 the Court ruled that the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the Immigration Act 2009 did not allow Mr Teitiota from Kiribati to be a refugee because climate change meant he could not sustain his subsistence living.

All of which, raises the law reform question – if the Immigration Act is not the solution for people losing their homes to climate change should New Zealand develop other laws and policies to help those who face the consequences of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions?