Like other low-lying islands, the small South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has already begun to feel the heat from global warming: vanishing shorelines and intense storms. If projections hold, the archipelago could be underwater by 2050, leaving thousands homeless. After being rejected by Australia, the Tuvaluan government is considering purchasing land to relocate refugees in New Zealand as a back-up plan.

But if the Yale Law School students working in tandem with Islands First — an advocacy group founded by a Yale graduate — are successful, the Tuvaluans will never have to resort to that. By providing research support to island nations like Tuvalu, the students hope to assist the island delegations in international climate change negotiations and ultimately to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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Founded in 2007 to help chronically understaffed and underfunded island nations, Islands First reached out to Yale Law School students for assistance at the 2009 United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen. Four students went to Copenhagen in December, helping Tuvalu and other nations to negotiate for tougher caps on emissions, and many students have since signed on to help Islands First with staffing at conventions, as well as on long-term research projects.


In 2005, Nick Arons ’98, then a master of laws student at New York University, began working with a United Nations diplomatic envoy from the South Pacific nation of Palau. As the sole adviser to Palau’s delegation, Arons quickly realized that small island states sorely needed more support in negotiations.

Palau, Tuvalu and many other Pacific island nations will be some of the primary victims of global climate change, Arons said — law professor Douglas Kysar called Tuvalu “the canary in the mine shaft” of climate change. According to predictions, rising seas will displace their populations and contaminate their freshwater supply with saltwater, and higher water temperature and acidity will continue to bleach coral reefs, reducing tourism to the islands.

Because these island nations have so acutely felt the impacts of climate change already, they have provided the impetus behind many important international agreements: In the 1990s, Arons said, Palau was a leading proponent of an international act that would prohibit deep-sea trawling, a method of fishing that drags a net along the ocean floor, unintentionally killing a variety of other sea creatures. Palau also actively supported the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, a landmark climate change treaty that set international goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“These island nations have a very vocal and very legitimate opinion,” said Paul Beaton LAW ’10, a member of the Law School’s Islands First team who traveled to Copenhagen in December.

But these nations lack the necessary funding and manpower to voice this opinion. While the United States and Brazil are each represented by over 800 people at UN conventions, nations like Tuvalu often send a contingent of just over a dozen; Julia Lisztwan LAW ’11 said delegations composed of only an ambassador and his wife are not unheard of. One person cannot possibly fill the shoes of 40, Lisztwan said, so island nations are frequently represented at vital negotiations only by a placard, not a human representative.

“It’s through these negotiations that nations can change course and respond to the needs and wishes of other nations,” Lisztwan said. “The negotiations are very much a dialogue between states, NGOs, businesses, and the island nations don’t physically have enough manpower.”

That’s where Yale Law students come in: Though they could not sit at the negotiating table at Copenhagen for Palau, Nauru and others, Lisztwan, Beaton and their peers provided research support for overworked diplomats, answering factual questions and keeping delegates informed on complex issues pertaining to international law.

“It’s a lot to expect that they even know what REDD means, let alone provide some meaningful contribution to a discussion about it,” Lisztwan said, referring to a United Nations program that aims to reduce emissions and deforestation.


After a lengthy transatlantic red-eye, Lisztwan landed in Copenhagen in the early morning, hoping to check into her hotel room and freshen up. But she wouldn’t make it to her room until 2 a.m., instead working through the day to support the diplomats from the small islands.

Still, the Islands First students said the arrangement is far from one-sided.

Even though Tuvalu delegation has a fraction of the number of law students as the U.S. entourage, each country receives one vote in the general assembly, the UN’s governing body, so the influence each law student wields in working for the smaller nations is magnified.

“If you are an environmental lawyer, your chance of ever having any influence on the General Assembly through the United States is zero,” Lisztwan said. “But going in with the island nations, you immediately have a seat at the table. This was like a shortcut to sit right behind the people who are sitting at the table and do what you may hope to do 30 years down the road.”

In addition to these immediate services, students at the Law School are currently conducting research projects for Islands First through the Environmental Protection Clinic, a class organized by Dale Bryk and Kit Kennedy, both visiting lecturers, that conducts studies on issues related to environmental law. In addition to studying strategies for handling displaced climate refugees, current case studies include research on making the application process for development assistance more fair for small nations.


The problem for the small island states, said Professor Kysar (who teaches a course called “Law of Climate Change”), is that the world has been unwilling to make the changes necessary to save small island nations from destruction.

December’s Copenhagen conference, for example, produced an accord that was generally considered disappointing and that sidelined the needs of smaller nations in favor of the interests of larger states, he said.

“What we saw at Copenhagen was a kind of dramatic collapse of the United Nations’ multinational, consensus-building approach to international lawmaking,” Kysar said.

But while the students said they are unhappy about the agreement that came out of Copenhagen — the largest summit of nations in history — their work with Islands First is just beginning. They are now working on research projects for Islands First and the law students interviewed said they plan to attend follow-up climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, and Cancun, Mexico, later this year.

Correction: March 3, 2010

An earlier version of this article misrepresented the nature of Islands First’s relationship with Tuvalu. The organization helps the small island nation with diplomatic tasks at the United Nations, not at climate conferences.