William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review


Jullee Kim


Currently, application of international environmental law assumes that humans are separate from nature. Yet, the terminology commonly adopted for persons displaced as a result of climate change, “climate refugees,” represents the ultimate expression of the nexus where impacts from both natural and human systems coalesce. “Climate” represents the physical conditions appearing as a result of climate change and altering a person’s home to render it no longer habitable. While suitability of the term “refugees” in the climate change context is debated, it represents the political and societal conditions forcing the person to flee from their home, potentially across national borders, and to seek refuge under a new international state. When “demographic pressure and chronic poverty” are paired with environmental degradation, political, ethnic, social, and economic tensions can easily escalate and lead to violence and persecution, forcing people to find new places for survival. There is potential to fill in existing gaps in protection under international law by reframing human individuals and especially those impacted by climate change, such as climate refugees, as Homo sapiens, as any other species within the biodiversity regime.

Prior attempts to address the political and societal influences surrounding the plight of “climate refugees” under international law, including environmental, human rights, refugee, and resettlement frameworks, as well as other international responses, have largely left the legal community dissatisfied with the lack of adequate protections. Under climate change and biodiversity regimes, international environmental law primarily addresses the impacts of climate change on the natural world. Meanwhile, there is increasing acknowledgment of interactions between climate change, ecosystems and human beings. The Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (“CBD”) has “actively sought to manage the interactions” between the CBD and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and made “significant conceptual progress . . . related to environmentally holistic and human rights–based approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

The CBD’s adoption of the ecosystem approach as its primary framework for action warrants “the reconstruction and re-imagination of nature, so that the ‘fence’ which has segregated humans from nature can be dismantled.” This Article explores the potential for all humans, and in particular climate refugees, to be reinserted into the biodiversity narrative as Homo sapiens, and be identified as any other species being impacted by climate change. This quest acknowledges the lack of agreement on definitions and perspectives associated with the concepts of biodiversity, ecosystems, and the ecosystem approach, but proposes that there may be opportunities to use the international biodiversity regime to provide protections to climate refugees through conservation and sustainable use of the entire ecosystems within which they are situated. Exploration in and beyond the scope of this Article could reveal utility through this resurfaced view of humans, which is proposed as the Homo sapiens approach to biodiversity.