WELLINGTON - A Pacific islander whose homeland is threatened by rising seas failed in an attempt to become the world's first climate change refugee Tuesday, with a New Zealand judge dismissing his case as "novel" but "unconvincing".
Lawyers for Ioane Teitiota, 37, argued that New Zealand should not deport him even though his visa had expired, because climate change was gradually destroying his low-lying home in Kiribati.
The difficulties Teitiota and his family would face in the tiny nation - which consists of about 30 atolls, most only a few metres above sea level - meant they should be recognised as refugees, the lawyers said.
In a written ruling handed down on Tuesday, High Court judge John Priestley acknowledged that Kiribati was suffering environmental degradation attributable to climate change, including storm surges, flooding and water contamination.
But he said millions of other people in low-lying countries were in a similar situation and Teitiota did not qualify as a refugee under international law.
Priestley said the UN Refugee Convention stated that a refugee must fear persecution if they returned home, a criteria Teitiota did not meet.
"The economic environment of Kiribati might certainly not be as attractive to the applicant and his fellow nationals as the economic environment and prospects of Australia and New Zealand," he said.
"But... his position does not appear to be different from that of any other Kiribati national."
The judge rejected the argument from Teitiota's legal team that he was being "persecuted passively" by the environment because climate change was a threat to him that the Kiribati government was powerless to control.