Book Reviews: Climate Change Forced Migration, and International Law


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Keywords: climate change, climate change-related movement, displacement, disappearing states, migration, international law, interna-tional refugee law, international human rights law

Millions of people are likely to be uprooted by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and agricultural disruption. This book examines how climate change may affect patterns of human mobility and whether existing legal and policy frameworks can sufficiently respond to it. The author, Professor Jane McAdam, offers both a theoretical analysis, studying whether current international law can respond to climate change-related movement, and assesses the growing body of literature on this issue. The book also contains empirical analysis, drawing on fieldwork undertaken in three countries that have become synonymous with the notion of climate change-induced movement - Kiribati, Tuvalu and Bangladesh. The study is based on a wide analysis of legal instruments and literature. Very conveniently, it contains a table of treaties, other international legal instruments and lesislation.

The book is divided into nine chapters. Chapter 1 explains that it is difficult to know whether people move for climate-related reasons and, if this is the case, how many people will move. It suggests that public debate is often simplistic and ill-informed. Researchers do not know when the effects of climate change are likely to be felt, nor the level of investment, planning and resources that will be committed to try to counter them. In particular, human adaptive capacity is the most difficult variable to foresee. The author then turns to the literature on the disappearance of small island states. This narrative has helped to generate international attention for the plight of these states. However, according to Jane McAdam, this simplistic representation of climate change in small island states limits our understanding of local context and prevents efficient action to address the interests of people living there. From the author's point of view, a realistic approach, which sees climate change as only one of a multitude of possible causes for movement, opens up more opportunities for solutions, institutional knowledge and capacity. Chapter 2 explores whether international refugee law may apply to people displaced for climate change reasons. It demonstrates that the definition of 'refugee' does not concern people forced to move on account of climate-related effects, in particular because most of these people are likely to be displaced internally rather than across an international border and because the harm feared does not amount to persecution. Very interestingly, the author also explains that the 'refugee' label is strongly rejected by the inhabitants of the small pacific islands of Kiribati and Tuvalu, who see it as undermining their human dignity. Professor McAdam points out that international refugee law offers useful standards to any new protection instrument of people moving because of climate change-related impacts. The following chapter notes that climate change affects people's enjoyment of their human rights. The book examines when states may have an obligation of non-refoulement entailed by the right to life and the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of people to an area badly affected by climate change. The author, however, rightly notes that it may be difficult to link slow-onset climate change impacts and the right to life. The book then turns to the question whether states may be held responsible for climate change in the context of state responsibility for environmental damage. Jane McAdam concludes that it is very difficult to quantify the harm caused by the carbon emissions of any particular state and to establish causation between the specific harm suffered and the conduct of the emitting state. An approach based on international legal responsibility is, therefore, not appropriate for climate-change induced movement.

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