Climate migrants will need more than “dignity”

This article originally appeared on Newsroom

Moving large portions or even whole populations of low-lying states in the Pacific is a long-term enterprise that could go wrong if New Zealand doesn’t engage with it fully.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw and Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito Su’a William Sio have given strong statements about supporting climate migration from Kiribati and Tuvalu. They signalled something more sophisticated than simple migration, and innovation will be needed.

There are 114,000 I-Kiribati and only 11,000 Tuvaluans. New Zealand’s net immigration is around 70,000 people annually. Even though this may come down with the new government, the numbers of climate migrants under consideration are not significant, especially if relocation is done over years or even decades.

But while the numbers may be small for New Zealand, the move is significant for I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans.

The concerns about climate migration relate to transforming from being members of outright majorities in their home countries to members of small minorities elsewhere, especially if communities are fragmented throughout the region. Relocation could threaten the social fabric that enables I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans to manifest their national identities through culture, language, norms, customs, and so forth.

On its own, therefore, simple migration threatens their ways of life: te katei ni Kiribati and tuu mo aganu Tuvalu.

Kiribati Independence

Kiribati (1979) and Tuvalu (1978) were among the last Commonwealth states to recover their independence from the UK, and but again their existence as nations and peoples is threatened by exogenous forces.

To deal with Pacific climate migration, Shaw signalled interest in the Nansen Initiative Protection Agenda. This is a voluntary framework for states to protect peoples who move across borders to escape sudden-onset disasters, like cyclones, and slow-onset disasters, like sea-level rise.

The Protection Agenda contains a number of recommendations. First, states need to collect data. They need to know which areas and communities are most at risk, and collaborate on developing scenarios for when and how cross-border relocation might occur.

Destination states, like New Zealand, also need to review their legal frameworks for managing incoming peoples: can existing visa schemes be adapted, or can visa requirements be waived altogether? Shaw is looking at developing an experimental humanitarian visa. Also, since returning to low-lying states will get more difficult and perhaps impossible, can the requirements for permanent residency and/or (dual) citizenship be simplified?

The Protection Agenda also recommends destination states provide assistance with basics: shelter, food, medical care, education, livelihoods, security, family unity, and respect for social and cultural identity.

For long-term settlers, measures to support sustained cultural and familial ties are recommended, along with recovery and reconstruction assistance.

The Protection Agenda is designed to be adapted for particular situations. What, then, are the local issues New Zealand, Kiribati and Tuvalu need to address?

Internationally, most cross-border displacement involves only a small part of a country’s population, but for Kiribati and Tuvalu climate change could require most or even entire populations moving permanently, and this has different implications.

Sio recognises low-lying islanders’ concerns about loss of national identity and suggests legislative protection for I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan languages.

But there is a broader issue, relevant in international law, but frequently overlooked in climate migration talks: the right to self-determination.

Self-determination is more than “migration with dignity” or being consulted.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which New Zealand ratified in 1978, self-determination is an inalienable, collective right of peoples to freely determine their political status and to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

Climate migration risks self-determination in two important ways. First, communities may be fragmented: some move to Auckland, some to Suva, some to Brisbane. Second, communities transform from outright majority to small minority.

No matter how well-intentioned, if climate migration allows these things to happen, the result is the peoples’ right to self-determination will be undermined.

New Zealanders know well that depriving peoples, like iwi and hapū, of their enjoyment of self-determination is catastrophic.

Being forced to move to New Zealand might end up as a kind of inverse colonisation: instead of the coloniser coming to peoples and forcing them to assimilate the coloniser’s culture, peoples now have to come to another society and integrate into that society’s culture.

While cultures are not static phenomena, and the peoples will enjoy some measure of protection of their culture, within a couple of generations the changes for migrant I-Kiribati and Tuvaluans in a new, dominant culture will be profound.

In the short term, rescue and protection is the fundamental requirement, and that’s where New Zealand will likely start. But, working with I-Kiribati and Tuvaluan as equals, New Zealand must recognise these peoples’ inalienable right to self-determination.

We need to recognise, too, that te katei ni Kiribati and tuu mo aganu Tuvalu are different ways of life to Pākehā’s ‘Homo economicusmodus operandi, and also need to be enabled.

Long term, as well as providing humanitarian visas, we can work with the low-lying states on innovations to determine:

  • How Pacific islanders might own land (whether individually, or in common; perhaps in a form similar to Māori Freehold Land)
  • The type of legal person that represents their communities in New Zealand (like a trust or a corporation) and internationally (how their states continue or change into some other international legal personality)
  • How to enable cultural norms and practices, language, and national identity
  • Whether these countries can access global climate change adaptation funding to buy land and otherwise re-establish communities here in New Zealand
  • Whether we have another system of laws and norms – along with common law and Māori custom – and, if so, how that might work.

If New Zealand and the global community reduce greenhouse gases urgently and fund in situ adaptation, these innovations should be unnecessary.

But if migration becomes necessary for low-lying states and New Zealand wants to help, we have to do so in ways that are socially and culturally sustainable.

Sydney’s rainbow community need to head west

The majority support for marriage equality in Australia is, of course, something to celebrate. And yet, at a deep personal level, I feel gutted.

At the national level, there are some exciting statistics. For example, 78.2% of people aged 18 to 19 voted in favour. Also, every State and territory voted in favour, and every single electorate voted in favour in the ACT, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

If I still lived in Australia (I’ve been in New Zealand for over a decade), perhaps I’d feel it differently. But, from here, 61.6% doesn’t feel like a “landslide” to me.

4,873,987 individual adult Australians, that is, 38.4% of those who submitted their survey, voted against the human rights of LGBTI+ people.

Many of those people live in Western Sydney.

I grew up in the suburb of Greystanes, which is about seven kilometres west of Parramatta, and in the electorate of McMahon that also includes Blacktown, Penrith and Fairfield.

McMahon had Australia’s third highest “No” vote: 65% of its residents voted against the equal treatment under the law of LGBTI+ people.

When I was in fourth class, at Beresford Road Public School, Culture Club were the big thing. After we’d gotten our heads around Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit in compulsory recorder lessons, the class was allowed to choose a popular song, from a limited list, that we’d learn to play. As a 9 or 10 year old boy, I was already hesitant to admit I wanted to do the Culture Club song, but it seemed most of the class was keen. So, I worked around my internal tensions and raised my hand at the right moment.

Unfortunately for me, “most of the class” turned out to be all the girls. The 9 and 10 year old boys in the class teased and bullied me mercilessly for being a “poofter” and a “girl”, and shoved me around the playground in the breaks. This went on for days, and the name-calling and ostracization continued for years: through until about year 11. Pure and simple, that moment in fourth class defined me as a “fag” – the guy who “gets a hard-on doin’ a shit” – even after that particular class was long forgotten (by the bullies).

Those school years – at Beresford Road Public School, Greystanes High, and Newman High (since renamed St Pauls Catholic College) – were torturous and left scars.

It is reasonable to expect some positive cultural shift, even in Sydney’s west, flowing from the survey result and the eventual passing of legislation (that, hopefully, won’t be bastardized by the conservatives).

But, for my mind, the results in Western Sydney are appalling.

Right this minute, as you read this, there are bisexual, gay, lesbian and/or transgender people of all ages who will be dealing – loudly or silently – with heinous treatment – directly or indirectly – by their families, friends, and peers.

As I imagine them, I can’t feel the excitement that so many others are enjoying because of the overall survey result.

So, enjoy the moment, and then, dear Sydneysiders, head west. LGBTI+ people there need a community where they are respected for who they are. Reach out to them and you will save lives and heartbreak.

Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk by Jan Matejko 1862

“Stanczyk during a Ball at the Court of Queen Bona after the Loss of Smolensk” by Jan Matejko (1862)

It’s Literally (not Figuratively) Erasure

Twitter has applied a “sensitive material” filter on the word “bisexual”, with the result being that a search for that word finds no results under Twitter’s categories of “Photos”, “Videos” and “News”.

Put the shoe on the other foot: imagine the response if all results were filtered when people searched Twitter for “Catholic”, or “MAGA”, or simply their favourite sports team.

There is abundant research showing that, compared to their straight and gay counterparts, bisexual people suffer dire outcomes in terms of mental health, suicidality, substance abuse, and unsafe sexual practices. These outcomes are caused by a unique form of prejudice, biphobia.

Biphobia is manifested in a number of ways, but relevant here is bisexual erasure. Erasure involves denying the existence of bisexuality altogether (“there’s no such thing”). Alternatively, it may involve situations where the revelation of a person’s bisexuality is met with assertions that they’re not; that they’re actually straight, gay or lesbian, or just “going through a phase”, and other such claims.

An insidious form of erasure is the literal removal of bisexuality from LGBTI+ vocabulary (“gay marriage”), research (“gay men”, when referring to all men who have sex with men), and participation in LGBTI+ organisations and events.

Removing “bisexual” as a search term in a global social media platform literally erases bisexual people’s existence, and cuts off a central resource for community and erasureTwitter has not yet explained its reasons, so we can only speculate that this action was conceived of, developed, and implemented to stop something less desirable than, for example, climate change denial and white supremacy, which are discussed liberally on the platform.

This buys into another form of biphobia: negative stereotypes. If Twitter were attempting to filter out hyper-sexualised content tagged with “bisexual”, then removing all bisexual content perpetuates the myth that bisexual people are promiscuous and indiscriminate.

The blunt policy choice speaks volumes of the biphobia at Twitter, since the company surely could have rolled out nuanced filtering systems.

Even after two days of outcry by bisexual users all over the world, the search capability has not been restored, even though online bullies, misogynists, racists and bigots can have their account up and running again within 11 minutes after something goes awry.[1]

Scholarly research on what enhances bisexual people’s wellbeing finds that an important factor is access to online social networks.[2] The web offers a community and a sense of belonging. It’s a source of information and resources for bisexual people and people exploring their sexual orientation, so #bisexual matters.

Twitter’s simpleton policy — implemented without ex ante consultation or warning, or ex post explanation or correction — literally removes this important source of wellbeing.

Rubbing salt into the wound, at the time of writing, the problem does not seem to have been reported on or discussed on social media by any New Zealand-based LGBTI+ organisation, except Beyond Binaries (of which I am a founding trustee and operate the Twitter account).

All together, this paints a picture of deep biphobia.



Making Gold

[This piece is adapted from a similar piece written for the newsletter of Victoria University of Wellington’s Postgraduate Students Association.]

If anyone has found their PhD experience to be entirely fabulous, it hasn’t been me, but I’m still pleased to be doing it. There are nuggets of gold that make the difficulties worthwhile.

The key challenge for me is that, throughout the process, there are those ever-present, gnawing questions, like

  • “Have I read enough?”
  • “Will I have enough / too many words?”
  • “Am I working hard enough on getting published?”
  • “Is my reasoning robust?”

… and so on. Regardless of the answers, the mere presence of these questions is draining.

And yet, during a particularly stressful period a while back, I said to someone in an unfiltered stream of tedium, “I have to work out how to deal with this because, when I’m not stressed, I love my PhD.” 

Do I?!

Actually, yes. But that was an “aha” moment that led me to thinking about why: what is it about my PhD that I enjoy so much? Here are some of the answers; some of the things I think back to when it doesn’t otherwise feel fantastic.

First, the content. I care about what I’m researching, i.e. how to use international law to protect the collective rights of peoples forced to leave their low-lying atoll countries by climate change.

Secondly, the new or enhanced knowledge and skills. I’m coming to understand more about the world and how to understand it.

Thirdly, being in charge. I love being the pilot of my journey. My supervisors might be flight attendants (or, maybe co-pilots, if I’m being generous), but the flight plan isn’t theirs; it’s dictated by the problem as I define it, and by the data.

Fourthly, being right. Not always, of course, but it’s fantastic when the data backs up my intuition.

Fifthly, being wrong. Not always, of course, but it’s fantastic to be forced to re-examine why I was wrong; to develop broader, deeper knowledge. It makes my work and my thinking more robust than getting things right from the start.

Finally, above all else, I love seeing my original ideas come together and emerge as tangible, delightful words and sentences and paragraphs. There have been moments where I’ve looked at my work and thought (in private), “This is fantastic”. These moments are real treasures. They’re secret treasures because we tend to value modesty, and because few people really understand my work and the value of these ideas. But that’s not going to stop me from enjoying them on my own. These are the nuggets of gold that make it all worthwhile.

An Alchemist in his Laboratory - by a follower of David Teniers the Younger

An Alchemist in his Laboratory by a follower of David Teniers the Younger [source]

Climate Change is a Direct Threat to Security, not Merely a “Threat Multiplier”

The Leaders of the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) have issued a statement calling for the UN to take action on climate change as a security matter.

Following a recent Climate Action Partnership event in Suva, Fiji, the PSIDS Leaders have asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a Special Representative on Climate Change and Security.

The PSIDS Leaders also called for the UN Security Council to have climate change and security as a permanent agenda item.

This is long overdue.

marshall_islands_flooding - cropped

Marshall Islands resident is surrounded by a high tide energised by a storm surge that damaged a number of homes across Majuro, the capital city, on 3 March 2015. [Source: Al Jazeera]

Rather than simply describing the security implications of climate change simply as a “threat”, it is generally referred to as a “threat multiplier“.[1]

Although the UN and the Security Council can look at “any questions relating to…security”, the dampening effect of the qualifying term, multiplier, is problematic.

The rationale is that “the risk emanates not from climate change per se, but from how climate change interacts with other environmental, economic, social and political factors”.[2]

It has already been shown that climate change has exacerbated pre-existing problems in certain conflict situations.[3] For such reasons, the Security Council President has said that the “possible adverse effects of climate change may, in the long run, aggravate certain existing threats to international peace and security”.[4]

There are two problems with this assessment.

First, risks to human security do not arise solely from conflict, but also from other dangers, including pandemics and environmental degradation.

Secondly, the Security Council President is wrong in their use of qualifiers – “possible”, “may”, and “in the long run” – in the general sense in which they are stated. There are and will be adverse effects, now and in the short- and long-term, and they will aggravate many existing threats to human security and will create new threats.

The reality is that, if there are no security risks arising from political, economic or other factors, then climate change is the threat per se.

Similarly, if there are suboptimal conditions that would be stable or improving except for climate change, then it is again a threat per se.

The low-lying States are the paradigmatic exemplar of climate change as a direct threat to security, not merely a threat multiplier.

Although the low-lying States are all developing States with other domestic challenges, those challenges are not existential threats, unlike the physical, environmental changes being wrought by climate change. It is too simplistic to suggest that climate change only exacerbates existing issues when the unprecedented phenomenon creates unprecedented threats to humans and human systems, and to essential natural systems.

Thus, for low-lying States and their nations, climate change is a direct threat to human security per se; not merely a threat multiplier. Their issues should not be clouded by looking at climate change as a generalised phenomenon, or by limiting the issue to conflict-related security situations.

The calls by the Leaders of the PSIDS are right, and the Secretary-General and Security Council should respond accordingly.


[1] Climate change and its possible security implications; Report of the Secretary-General A/74/350 (2009); Michael B Gerrard The Role of Climate Change as a Threat Multiplier for Global Security (Security Council Open Arria Formula Meeting, 30 June 2015); and Briefing Book for a New Administration: Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate (The Climate and Security Advisory Group, Washington DC, 14 September 2016).

[2] Caitlin E Werrell and Francesco Femia Climate Change as Threat Multiplier: Understanding the Broader Nature of the Risk (The Center for Climate & Security, Briefer no. 25, 12 February 2015) at 2.

[3] Carl-Friedrich Schleussner and others “Armed-conflict risks enhanced by climate-related disasters in ethnically fractionalized countries” (2016) 113(33) PNAS 9216; and Peter H Gleick “Water, Drought, Climate Change, and Conflict in Syria” (2014) 6 Weather, Climate and Security 331.

[4] Statement by the President of the Security Council S/PRST/2011/15* (2011).

Are Recent Weather events Caused by Climate Change?

Untitled tweet

Well meaning people (i.e. not climate-denying trolls) have been reasonably questioning whether it’s fair for me to say in this tweet that NZ’s record-breaking floods are caused by climate change.


The science has been clear for a long time: extreme weather events will become

  1. more frequent, and
  2. more extreme.

I don’t know if it can be determined whether this was one of the extra, “more frequent” events or one of the “normal” events. But the scale of it clearly falls into the category of being “more extreme”.

But here’s the thing: We’ve got common sense and intuition, which are backed up by mountains of scientific data and analysis. Based on all of that, we know that these unprecedented, record-breaking events are unnatural; we know they are the result of weak climate policies, among other things.

If we buy into the narrative that we can’t be sure whether some particular event is caused by climate change, we’re actually buying into the narrative that has been crafted by climate deniers.

And if your science-based intuition is still unsure, sweet. But at least you can fall back on the precautionary principle, which says that a lack of scientific certainty is not a basis for inaction; rather, the burden falls on others to prove why we shouldn’t act cautiously.

Including bisexuals in LGBTI+ campaigns, including the UN’s

In 2013, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) launched the UN Free & Equal  campaign. It aims to address prejudice towards people based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.UN_Free_and_Equal

They have just released their 2016 Progress Report, which highlights (among other things) that they have reached an incredible 1.5 billion people with their many online and on-the-ground campaigns throughout the globe.

This level of outreach for the rainbow community is unprecedented, and given the role of the UN and the esteem of the OHCHR, it is imperative that they get their campaigns right.

It is entirely appropriate that the campaign targets where LGBTI+ people suffer the worst discrimination and violence. However, in their general communications, they must ensure they do not perpetuate existing problems. There are still instances where bisexuals are erased from the community and from the Free & Equal campaign.

Again and again, research illustrates why it is critical that bisexuals’ issues are accounted for in campaigns by, or for, the rainbow community.

Biphobia and bisexual erasure mean that bisexuals have heightened concerns about stigma and are, therefore, less likely to reveal their sexual orientation than homosexuals. They suffer stigma-related stress and report a greater sense of isolation and lack of social support. The disconnection is not just from heterosexuals, but also from gays and lesbians, which isolates bisexuals from the rainbow community where they might expect support. (At the recent Pride Festival in Wellington, New Zealand, people who were ostensibly gay and lesbian openly expressed negativity towards the presence of a bisexual stall with bisexual staff.)

Bisexual women are more than three times as likely to be raped as straight or lesbian women, affecting nearly 1 in 2 bisexual women.

Given such conditions, bisexuals suffer from: internalised biphobia; a reduced sense of safety; increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidality; increased binge-drinking, substance abuse and heavy smoking; and lower GP awareness of sexual orientation and behaviour and, therefore, lower testing and identification of sexually-transmitted diseases. Most of these well-being indicators are worse for bisexuals than for homosexuals because of the aforementioned prejudice from within the LGBTI+ community.

[References to all of this research can be provided upon request.]

The UN Free & Equal campaign frequently uses the phrase “LGBT and intersex” as its all-encompassing language. However, bisexual erasure sneaks in a few times. In their Progress Report:

  • They use the acronym, IDAHOT, which erases bisexuals. (Page 5) An inclusive alternative is IDAHOBIT.
  • They refer to “gay” relationships being criminalised, when bisexual people can be in similar-sex relationships too. (Page 7)
  • There is a screenshot of a Tweet which says, “Homophobia and transphobia harms [sic] the mental health of LGBT youth”. Yes, and biphobia is evidently more harmful, and thus needs to have been included. (Page 9)

The campaign is doing excellent work, and I applaud them for it. It is critical, however, that the harms from bisexual erasure are not perpetuated by a programme with such massive global reach.

In fact, ideally, given how relatively poor bisexuals’ well-being is, what’s really called for is a targeted programme to deal with the specific issues of biphobia.

When the Free & Equal campaign gets bi-inclusion right, hopefully local rainbow organisations can follow suit and start really representing everyone in the sexual orientation and gender identity spectra.


Bisexuals’ unique issues are frequently subsumed by generic LGBTI campaigns, but need to be considered separately, both in research and in campaigns like the UN’s.

unfe stamps

UN Stamps sold 150,000 of their Free & Equal sets