Climate change threatens to displace millions of people from their homes. Most of those displaced will be from developing countries, though developed countries are by no means immune, as evidenced by hurricane Katrina. People living on islands are at risk of displacement for any number of reasons, including:
- lack of food due to marginalized cropland, desertification, drought, and marine ecosystem collapse;
- lack of clean freshwater due to saltwater contamination of freshwater lenses, flooding and drought;
- extreme weather events such as hurricanes and tropical storms; and
- inundation, storm surge, and tidal flooding caused by rising sea levels.
Adaptation to these threats will be necessary for many islands just to compensate for warming that has already occurred, but at a certain point adaptation will be impossible unless it is accompanied by strong mitigation efforts. Funding provided by developed countries for the adaptation efforts of developing countries has thus far been inadequate.
There are currently few legal protections under international law for those displaced by climate-related impacts. Only in certain circumstances will such victims qualify as a "refugee" under the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and be entitled to the rights associated with that status. This omission will likely become more problematic as climate emergencies increase in frequency.
Low-lying island nations are especially at risk. The Carterets Islands of Papua New Guinea is one of the first island communities to be displaced by climate change and is currently being relocated to the larger island of Bourgainville. The relocation efforts have suffered from lack of funding and resistance from receiving communities.