Kiribati is on the front lines of climate change. If global sea levels rise 3 feet by 2100 as scientists expect, most of the low-lying island nation would disappear into the Pacific.

Yet even as the effects of global warming gnaw at Kiribati's 32 tiny atolls, an early skirmish over the country's predicament — and perhaps that of many coastal communities around the world — is unfolding hundreds of miles away in New Zealand. There, a man from Kiribati is seeking asylum as a climate change "refugee," arguing the encroaching ocean has forced him, his wife and their three children to find a new home on higher ground.

"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," the man recently told an immigration court in New Zealand, according to a transcript obtained by Associated Press. "Especially for my children. There's nothing for us there."

The man — identified only as "AF" due to New Zealand's immigration laws — fled Kiribati six years ago with his wife, and their children were born in New Zealand. The couple is reportedly living and working on a farm there, but their request for refugee status has already been denied twice. The next step comes Oct. 16 at New Zealand's High Court, although their lawyer has said he'll appeal all the way to the Supreme Court if needed.

The case may foreshadow an emerging global problem. In a new report released last month, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that Earth's oceans will rise by 1 to 3 feet over the next 90 years — an ominous forecast for tens of millions of people on low-lying islands and coastal cities from the Pacific to the Caribbean. Kiribati, for example, averages just 6 feet above sea level, and most of its 103,000 residents are crowded into low-elevation areas near the shore.

Tarawa atoll

Vacant land is scarce on Tarawa atoll, Kiribati's capital. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

Kiribati's leaders are well aware of the dangers they face. President Anote Tong recently predicted the country will be uninhabitable in 30 to 60 years due to coastal flooding, erosion and saltwater intrusion, and his government has paid a deposit on 6,000 acres of land in Fiji to provide food security and possibly a home for future generations. Similar planning is underway in the Maldives and other low-lying nations, but it does little to alleviate the immediate pressures in places like Kiribati's Tarawa atoll, where overcrowding and a shortage of usable land has made life increasingly difficult, even dangerous.

"Fights, often involving knives, break out and, from time to time, people are injured and killed," an expert witness recently told New Zealand's immigration tribunal. "The vegetation has died back in many places, leaving a barren land."

New Zealand isn't unsympathetic, immigration official Bruce Burson tells, but granting asylum to one family could set an unsustainable precedent. Not only are refugees typically oppressed directly by other humans — rather than indirectly via manmade climate change — but AF's plight is shared by most, if not all, of Kiribati's population.

"The sad reality is that environmental degradation caused by both slow and sudden-onset natural disasters is one which is faced by the Kiribati population generally," Burson says.

AF's case may be a long shot, but even if it fails, it could still raise the problem's profile before more people are displaced. Sea-level rise doesn't just threaten Pacific islanders — as IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri has warned, there's also a "very high risk" in dense delta cities like Kolkata, Shanghai and New Orleans. The U.N. doesn't currently include climate castaways in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, but many refugee advocates say climate change warrants a new, broader definition.

"These are people who are not suffering from persecution because of their beliefs, race or because they belong to a particular group," Phil Glendenning of Australia's Refugee Council told the Guardian earlier this year. "So they don't meet the Refugee Convention criteria but, nevertheless, there will be a need for people to be resettled because they have been displaced by climate change. This is a new cohort of people who are emerging, [and] the rest of the world needs to pay attention."

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