University of San Diego

San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law


Lucia Rose

Library of Congress Authority File


The effects of global climate change is forecasted to cause millions of people to leave their homes and home countries over the next century. Until this point, the current legal framework for determining the fate and protection of people feeling their homes due to emergency was rooted in the United Nations (“UN”) Refugee Convention of 1951 and has been read to exclude those whose primary reason for migration is the effects or threat of climate change. However, the UN Human Rights Committee’s (HRC) January 2020 decision regarding Ioane Teitiota’s deportation to his home nation of the Republic of Kiribati suggests the current framework is amenable to expansion to address this impending global crisis.

The Teitiota decision indicates that there are two possible legal pathways through which climate migrants may find legal standing and protection: (1) an expanded reading of the definition of “refugee” under the 1951 Convention, and (2) an application of article 6 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights protections to climate migrants. This paper will examine the suggestions offered by the HRC in Teitiota and their potential requirements, revealing the remaining legal questions and outlining a series of scenarios that will need to be addressed for either pathway to become a viable strategy for migrants.

Teitiota offered two pathways to establishing refugee status under the HRC definition. Neither pathway is well-defined, though both provide a useful framework for future claims. First, the HRC suggested five benchmarks by which a person displaced due to climate change or its effects might qualify as a “refugee” under the 1951 Convention. Teitiota offers exclusions from which to build. Second, Teitiota also detailed three requirements of article 6 to be met in order for an author (a claimant in UN proceedings) must meet to successfully make a “right to life” violation claim. The Tribunal did not, however, define quantitative standards to evaluate governmental violations of a resident’s “right to life” stemming from climate change. Accordingly, although Teitiota offers a useful starting point, the Tribunal will likely need to decide a variety of “stepping-stone” cases to clarify the framework set forth in Teitiota.