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Monday, October 8, 2012

YLS Partner Palau Acknowledged as International Environmental Leader

Surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, the Republic of Palau may be known for its flat calm waters, but the tiny island chain in the northern Pacific is making big waves on the international environmental scene. It was recently named recipient of the World Future Council’s 2012 Future Policy Award, which this year honored exemplary policies that contribute to the sustainable management of the world’s oceans and coasts. Palau was recognized for two marine policies – its Protected Areas Network Act, which has designated and supports dozens of protected areas countrywide, including fringing reefs, lagoons, a sardine sanctuary, and mangroves; and its Shark Haven Act, which protects more than a hundred species of deep water and reef sharks in Palau’s waters.

Palau’s award is good news for Yale Law School, which has partnered with Palau and other Pacific island nations in addressing the impact of climate change, and particularly gratifying to those involved in the YLS course, “Climate Change and the International Court of Justice.” The course is looking at the legal and policy issues raised by a campaign initiated last year by Palau to determine what responsibility nations have, if any, to avoid doing harm through climate change. Students are examining the possibility that the U.N. General Assembly might ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion outlining what international law says about states’ responsibilities to one another with regard to climate change-induced harms.

“Part of the reason why climate change treaty negotiations have cycled through the same set of arguments for the last 20 years is that we don’t have a clear baseline understanding of state responsibility,” said YLS Professor Doug Kysar, who teaches the course along with Ambassador Stuart Beck ’71 and Counselor Aaron Korman of the Permanent Mission of Palau to the United Nations. “An ICJ opinion would help give structure and traction to climate talks that otherwise seem to be going nowhere.”

Professor Kysar says the boldness of the ICJ idea is indicative of why Palau, a dot on the map with the population of a small American town, won such an impressive environmental award. It was not afraid to go up against powerful international interests opposed to marine protection, just as it is not afraid to ask critical questions about the business-as-usual approach to climate change negotiations. The stakes are high for Palau. Global warming is a grave threat to its very existence.

“Palau’s Protected Areas Network Act was adopted in 2003 and nine years later, it’s being recognized as a visionary environmental policy,” said Kysar. “I see a second award in Palau’s future for the ICJ idea – it’s too powerful to resist.”

Read a related Huffington Post commentary by Professor Kysar and Tian Huang ’13 – Climate Victims Deserve a Hearing, Whether Here or in The Hague.