Counting climate refugees as equivalent to any other refugee
Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati (a nation of extremely low-lying Pacific islands and atolls) claimed refugee status in New Zealand after his visa expired, on the basis that climate change had made his homeland dangerous to return to. This was not accepted by immigration New Zealand, and he appealed it through the courts, which concurred (see here):
Mr. Teitiota claimed that he was entitled to be recognized as a refugee “on the basis of changes to his environment in Kiribati caused by sea-level-rise associated with climate change.”1 A refugee and protection officer declined to grant refugee status, and this decision was upheld by the Immigration and Protection Tribunal. Mr. Teitiota subsequently sought leave from the High Court to appeal the Tribunal’s decision on questions of law under section 245 of the Immigration Act 2009. His application for leave to appeal to the High Court was declined by both the High Court and Court of Appeal in 2013 and 2014, respectively. On July 20, 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the decisions of the lower courts and dismissed Mr. Teitiota’s application for leave to appeal.
The supreme court found that while this particular case did not have merit, the general concept of a climate refugee was valid:
It confirmed the lower courts’ findings that, in relation to the Refugee Convention, Mr. Teitiota does not face “serious harm” and further that “there is no evidence that the Government of Kiribati is failing to take steps to protect its citizens from the effects of environmental degradation to the extent that it can.”
The Supreme Court did note, however, the statements of the IPT and High Court that their decisions “did not mean that environmental degradation resulting from climate change or other natural disasters could never create a pathway into the Refugee Convention or protected person jurisdiction.” The Court similarly explicitly stated that its decision in this particular case “should not be taken as ruling out that possibility in an appropriate case.”
He then appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC). Again they ruled against him in this specific instance as they found his life would not be placed under immediate threat upon returning to Kiribati, but that the general principle was valid (CNN story, with link to the ruling):
In its ruling, the committee cited articles 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which ensure an individual's inherent right to life.
"Given that the risk of an entire country becoming submerged under water is such an extreme risk, the conditions of life in such a country may become incompatible with the right to life with dignity before the risk is realized," its decision added.
Now this is a UN ruling and as far as I understand such things, they simply set general principles which are intended to guide international law, but are not actually legally binding on any nation. But it does at least lay the groundwork for an expectation of nations to treat climate refugees as legitimate refugees.