Climate Displacement with Dignity: Moving Beyond the Paradigm of Refugee Status

Over 1.2 billion people will be displaced by 2050 due to environmental change, conflict and civil unrest (IEP, 2020). This threat is particularly existential in low-lying island nations, many of which face the gradual extinction not only of individualized communities, but of entire nations. Without conflict, persecution, or governance failure, however, those displaced by climate change cannot call themselves “refugees”. The global community faces a stark choice: either wait for these climate displaced persons to be subsumed by violence and social instability or change the definition of what it means to be a “refugee,” thus creating for millions an off-ramp from the predictable chaos that would otherwise ensue. One might even conceptualize an entirely new legal framework to handle climate displacement. Focusing on island nations in the South Pacific, this paper paints the contours of such a framework built around the human dignity of climate-displaced populations and communities.