For environmentalists, the story of Tuvalu is well known. A tiny smattering of islands somewhere between Australia and Hawaii, Tuvalu totals ten square miles and has about 12 thousand people. Because Tuvalu's low-lying islands are so susceptible to the slightest change in sea level, the gradual rise of the oceans caused by global warming has become an existential threat. As a result, Tuvalu has been championed by environmentalists as a symbol of climate change's threat. 


That threat, of course, is caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. While oil companies like ExxonMobil may only be directly responsible for a small fraction of those emissions, such companies have become to some activists a symbol of climate change's causes. This all leads Mother Jones' Rachel Morris to ask, could Tuvalu sue ExxonMobil?
Countries affected by oceanic changes could seek redress via the Convention on the Law of the Sea, although it can't be used against the US—which hasn't ratified the treaty. A nation could go after a polluter in the International Court of Justice on the grounds that its citizens' human rights would be violated if their country were wiped off the map—but, again, the US is not a signatory, and the ICJ is somewhat toothless. A number of lawyers told me that the most promising avenue might be the common- law doctrine used in the Kivalina case. Any nation could sue a US company in US court for a "nuisance" caused by climate change—Tuvalu v. ExxonMobil, if you will. And a couple of island nations that were once American protectorates, like Micronesia and Palau, have legal compacts with the US that give them more powerful tools: They could potentially sue a company or even a government agency, using domestic statutes such as the Clean Air Act.
Image: Pelenise Alofa, a Tuvalu resident poses in front of a poster representing a lifebelt reading 'Climate Change Kills' at the Bella center of Copenhagen on December 15, 2009 on the 9th day of the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference. By Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty.