New Zealand Law Society

Navigation menu

NZ needs new legal response to climate change, says adviser

29 November 2017

A Law Commission legal and policy adviser says New Zealand may need to develop a pre-emptive legal response to the loss of land due to climate change in the Pacific before it becomes an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

An Oxfam report says over the coming decades, large numbers of Pacific people — and even entire nations — face displacement from their homes and livelihoods. But the report says this reality has yet to be met by a sufficient increase in the scale and accessibility of financial resources. It suggests both New Zealand and Australia can do more to help affected countries such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.

As part of the Law Commission’s internal seminar series, Legal and Policy Adviser John-Luke Day 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.

Mr 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.

Mr Day says sea levels have risen nearly 20cm in the past 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 by buying 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, who is from Kiribati, to be a refugee because climate change meant he could not sustain his subsistence living.

All of which, Mr Day says, 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?

Meanwhile, Climate Change Minister James Shaw told a major United Nations climate change conference this month that New Zealand intends to become a leader in the global fight against climate change.

“I have set out to the international community our new government’s plans to reduce climate pollution at home and remain actively engaged with the international effort,” said Mr Shaw.

“Our goals and plans for forestry, energy, transport, and agriculture are getting a good reception. People seem really pleased to see the new New Zealand government planning to lead by example.”

Last updated on the 16th September 2019