The United Nations’ strict definition of “refugee” prevents individuals who are forced to migrate — often due to effects caused by climate change — from claiming the legal protections afforded to those lawfully classified as refugees. This restrictive definition represents a failure of current international law in responding to one of the world’s most pressing existential threats. The effects of climate change, including global warming, extreme weather and rising sea levels, displace millions of individuals worldwide. However, because climate change has only recently become recognized as a serious global and existential issue, international law has not yet responded to the threat. In this Note, the case will be made for expanding the definition of the term “refugee” to provide legally binding protections and tools for individuals who are affected by climate change.

First, the current definition of a “refugee” will be deconstructed and an explanation will be given for why this definition leaves out climate migrants. We will use the case of Ioane Teitiota v. The Chief Executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment in New Zealand as an example of how the current definition — and its application in international law — excludes climate migrants. A case that adopts a broader interpretation of refugee law will be discussed to compare the plight of climate migrants to refugees and to highlight the similarities between the two, specifically concerning the term “persecution” — one of the categories which classifies an individual as a refugee. Finally, the argument will be made that the rigid and outdated definition of “refugee” unjustly excludes climate refugees who are facing human rights violations as a direct result of climate change. These cases could then potentially be used as justification for expanding the term “refugee” to include climate migrants.