Mark your calendar: The age of modern climate-change refugees may have just begun. New Zealand has agreed to let the family of Sigeo Alesana, a teacher, migrate from Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation where rising salt water is said to be polluting the drinking water, the Smithsonian and Radio New Zealand News report. Officials who accepted their claim didn't emphasize the climate-change connection, and did mention the family's ties to New Zealand (they'd lived there a few years ago), possibly to keep climate refugees from coming by the boat-load. "I do see the decision as being quite significant," an environmental law expert tells the New Zealand Herald. "But it doesn't provide an open ticket for people from all the places that are impacted by climate change."
Yet the family won by appealing on humanitarian grounds, so the ruling has generated media buzz. And with 150 million to 300 million climate refugees expected worldwide by 2050, New Zealand's decision could send "a strong signal" to countries like Sweden and Finland, which often take in people from natural disasters, the Washington Post reports. "I believe that bilateral or regional arrangements are going to become necessary," says a French climate-migration expert. Migrating peoples may have to prepare, too: Kiribati, another island nation threatened by climate change, has designed a program to train its people in skilled labor so they don't become "second-hand" citizens after moving. (Scientists think Kiribati may be under the waves by the end of this century.)