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YLS Students Supporting Small Pacific Islands in their Quest for Action on Climate Change

Small Pacific island states concerned about the potentially devastating effects of climate change are getting a huge assist from members of Yale’s Environmental Protection Clinic. The clinic, made up of law and forestry students, has teamed up with Islands First, an organization assisting the small islands in their push for action to address the climate change crisis. The organization contacted Yale Law School Dean Robert Post last November about a possible collaboration. Dean Post in turn contacted clinic director Dale Bryk and environmental law professors Dan Esty ’86 and Doug Kysar, indicating his strong support for the partnership.

“We are fortunate to have a law school dean who recognizes the growing significance of these kinds of opportunities,” said Professor Kysar. “If our goal is to train the next generation of thought leaders and change agents to take the global stage, then the problem of climate change is the ultimate drama for them to study.”

As part of the partnership with Islands First, a small group of clinic students and two of Professor Kysar’s supervised writing students went to the COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen in December, where they worked closely with several island delegations, doing research, assembling briefing packets, attending meetings and negotiation sessions, and providing the legal expertise and manpower the understaffed delegations sorely needed.

YLS student Julia Lisztwan ’11 works alongside Islands First Executive Director Mark Jariabka in Copenhagen.

“It was a really successful collaboration that hugely expanded our capacity in Copenhagen,” said Mark Jariabka, executive director of Islands First. “When you’re a delegate from a small island state, you have very little time to do research or get up to speed on emerging issues. Having the extra help from the Yale students was key.”

Jariabka says climate change is a huge issue for the small islands, who fear that rising sea levels could eventually put them underwater. Even now, he says, they are being impacted by the rising tides and extreme weather patterns that are resulting in more severe storms, flooding and droughts, food and water insecurity, and deteriorating coral reefs. These and other issues are being addressed in about four different projects the clinic is working on for Islands First and in research being conducted by students in Kysar’s “Law of Climate Change” course.

Kit Kennedy is a visiting lecturer in the Environmental Protection Clinic and lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says the Islands First collaboration is a natural fit for the clinic, whose goals are to train Yale students to become the next generation of top flight environmental advocates and to share the students’ much-needed legal and environmental expertise with NGOs and government agencies.

“The Islands First Project is a perfect match,” said Kennedy. “The organization gets the benefit of the clinic team’s huge energy and great skills, and the clinic team has the exciting challenge of helping the under-represented Pacific Island nations make their voice heard in Copenhagen and in other forums. We’re looking forward to a long-term relationship between the clinic and Islands First.”

“Working with Islands First was an incredible opportunity to closely observe, and contribute to, the negotiations,” said clinic teaching assistant Julia Lisztwan ’11, who spent eight days in Copenhagen. “Our role was to follow the different negotiating tracks and respond quickly with memos that outlined substantive changes, monitoring the positions of key parties and highlighting appropriate responses. The Islands First staff and board members are inspiring to work with. They demonstrate the impact a handful of individuals can have on a seemingly opaque and monolithic process.”

The Environmental Protection Clinic is a joint enterprise of Yale Law School and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Launched in 1994 by Professor Daniel Esty, it aims to give students real-world experience in the areas of complex negotiation; political, economic, and policy analysis; strategic planning; and community service. The Yale students got all that and more at Copenhagen and are hoping to recreate those efforts at climate change negotiations this June in Bonn and at COP16 in Mexico City in December.

“Our collaboration with Islands First will provide our students with the experience of working on one of the most important issues of our time in the service of a client who is a major player on the world stage,” said Dean Post, who hopes to expand such activities at Yale Law School in the future. “It will prove outstanding preparation for effective public advocacy in the environmental area.”