Rising sea levels have already forced relocation of some villagers in the Kiribati Islands.

Rising sea levels have already forced relocation of some villagers in the Kiribati Islands. Photo: Justin McManus

A Pacific Island man's bid to become a climate change refugee suffered a blow on Tuesday after a New Zealand court refused to let him challenge a decision denying him asylum.

Ioane Teitiota, 37, had said he was trying to escape rising seas and environmental risks caused by global warming in his home country of Kiribati.

But New Zealand's High Court in Auckland ruled that his claim fell short of the legal criteria, such as fear of persecution or threats to his life.

Justice John Priestly called the bid novel but misguided, and upheld the original decision by an immigration tribunal.

"By returning to Kiribati, he would not suffer a sustained and systemic violation of his basic human rights such as the right to life...or the right to adequate food, clothing and housing," Priestley wrote in his judgment.

An immigrant who overstayed his permit, Teitiota, who arrived in New Zealand in 2007 and has three children born there, now faces deportation unless he appeals to a higher court.

Teitiota's lawyer, who was not available for comment, had argued that New Zealand's refugee laws were outdated.

The claim for refugee status spelled out how high tides breached seawalls and rising ocean levels were contaminating drinking water, killing crops and flooding homes.

The low-lying South Pacific island nation of Kiribati has a population of more than 100,000, but its average height of 2 metres above sea level makes it one of the countries most vulnerable to rising waters and other climate change effects.

New Zealand and Australia, the two most developed countries in the South Pacific, have resisted calls to change immigration rules in favour of Pacific people displaced by climate change.

Kiribati, part of former British colony the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, comprises 32 atolls and a coral island, straddling the Equator halfway between Australia and Hawaii and spread over 3.5 million sq km of ocean.

It has bought land in Fiji to grow food and build a potential resettlement site for people displaced by rising seas. It is trying to give its people skills to become more attractive as immigrants, an approach it calls "migration with dignity".

Reuters