A Lawyer On Thin Ice

​Betsy Baker, VLS professor, spent six weeks aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic in order to better understand the complex issues raised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty.​​

Betsy Baker gazed out in wonder as she stood on the bow of the icebreaker USCGC Healy. Ice and sun extended for as far as she could see, a white carpet that rose up to touch the sky. Around her, the Arctic waters groaned and creaked as the boat—her home for the next 40 days—crushed and sliced its way through the frozen surface of the sea.

“There was something ethereal and transporting about it,” says the Vermont Law School professor of her time on the icebreaker in 2008 and in 2009. “It was absolutely beautiful.”​

​Baker was in the company of scientists and crew aboard the Healy, but in one respect she was alone: She was the only lawyer. After just a year on the faculty at VLS, Baker accepted an unusual invitation: to spend six weeks aboard an icebreaker in the Arctic in order to better understand the complex issues raised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty.

UNCLOS stipulates that each of the world’s coastal states—which include the five nations with land bordering the Arctic Ocean—Denmark (with respect to Greenland), Norway, Canada, Russia and the United States—is entitled to exclusive sovereign rights in the seafloor and subsoil of the submarine areas known as the continental shelf. Those rights are automatic up to 200 nautical miles from a country’s baselines and need no further proof. With sufficient evidence, a nation can also assert seafloor and subsurface rights beyond 200 nautical miles to what is called the extended continental shelf, the submerged margin of the continent. In order to determine where this boundary lies, coastal states around the world are either still engaged in expensive and extensive undersea mapping, or have already submitted their scientific evidence to the commission tasked with considering the data. In 2008, the Healy embarked on the fourth of what would be eight U.S. scientific cruises to map the Arctic Ocean continental shelf. In 2009, Baker again embarked on Healy, which this time was sailing with the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent for a joint mapping cruise.

The frenetic activity reflects what is at stake as polar caps are melting and offering access to what lies beneath: the Arctic contains about one-fourth of the world’s supply of untapped natural gas and oil. In 2007, Russia sent two submersibles to the seabed beneath the North Pole and planted a titanium Russian flag, setting off international alarm bells in the popular media; concerns that the five Arctic Ocean coastal states and the international community in general did not share. To underline that there was no land grab underway (as commonly mischaracterized by the media), Russia, the United States and the three other Arctic Ocean coastal states signed the Ilulissat Declaration in 2008 and affirmed their agreement that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the legal order for extended continental shelf claims and a host of other marine issues in the Arctic. The U.S. is the only Arctic nation that has not joined the treaty—a small group of Republican senators has blocked its ratification, saying that it infringes on American sovereignty—but it abides by it.

“Strengthening legal frameworks for addressing the myriad changes in a warming Arctic has been the primary focus of my research,” Baker explains. An international lawyer and historian, Baker is now a go-to expert on the Arctic. Through her work with the U.S. State Department and the Arctic Council, an international governing body for the Arctic, Baker has played an important role in elevating the status and understanding of the frozen north.

“She’s one of the preeminent Arctic scholars out there,” says Becca Pincus MSEL’11, a VLS alumna and Baker’s former student. Pincus is now a distinguished visiting professor of maritime policy at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and permanent staff at its Center for Arctic Study and Policy.

Pincus says that Baker has advised governments and pioneered “new pathways and regimes for management of the Arctic Ocean. She is looked up to globally. As boundary disputes in the Arctic [are perceived by some as] intensifying, Betsy has been one of the voices who says that these disputes do not have to lead to conflict. … She has been a leading voice pushing back against the idea that there is a mad scramble for the Arctic.”

With the Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Baker asserts, “The sheer pace of climate change in the Arctic makes it critical that the Arctic be at the center of our consciousness.” ​

From Lawyer To The Arctic

So how does a one-time Minneapolis real estate attorney end up on the bow of an icebreaker and promoting international Arctic cooperation?

Betsy Baker laughs at the question. She is speaking to me from her office in Anchorage, Alaska, where she lives when not teaching at VLS. She is an affiliate professor with the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and works occasionally on projects for the University of Washington School of Law as it establishes a presence in Alaska.

Baker grew up in Ann Arbor, one of four children. Her father was in the pipeline business and later a small-scale builder in Detroit, and her mother gave her a love of writing poetry and playing outside as a child. “I’m not sure that what I love to do has changed a whole lot since then,” says Baker. 

Baker received her bachelor’s degree in history from Northwestern University in 1978. As she considered her future, she had a moment of reckoning. “I saw that the market for history PhDs was abysmal, and I saw the lawyer my dad worked with—he was a small businessman—as positive and helpful.” After a year in the graduate program for archives administration and history at the University of Michigan, she transferred to Michigan’s law school, earning her JD in 1982. 

Only about one-fourth of Baker’s law school classmates were women (today women represent just under half of law school students nationally; at VLS, women comprise 57 percent of the 2015 entering class). When I ask Baker, who is 58, whether she views herself as a pioneer as a woman in law, she responds with an anecdote. “My dad told me as I considered law school that I could pursue whatever career I dreamed of. Most importantly, he didn’t want me ‘to ever have to depend on a man’ but to be able to support myself. That wasn’t that unusual for the day, but it was good advice.”

Following law school, Baker worked as a real estate lawyer in Minneapolis and then spent a decade as dean of international programs at University of Minnesota Law School. 

One memory stands out from her days as associate dean. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor came to speak at the Twin Cities campus when she was the first and only woman on the Court, and Baker was given the role of escorting her. “I remember women bringing their baby daughters to her public talk almost as though to be blessed by Justice O’Connor,” she recalls. “They wanted them and their daughters simply to be in her presence. It was pretty powerful.”

Minnesota sent her on sabbatical to Germany to strengthen her international law background. In 2000 she earned a PhD at Christian-AlbrechtsUniversität in Kiel, Germany, where she studied international law and history. Legal history continues to be one of her passions. Soon after returning from Europe, Baker went to work at Harvard Law School as a lecturer and assistant dean for the graduate program and international legal studies. Overseeing the program for some 250 LLM students and some 40 SJD candidates, Baker in effect ran a small law school within the law school.

In 2007, Baker joined the faculty of Vermont Law School. Her decision to come to Vermont was influenced largely by the community that she found at the school. “It’s a community of people devoted to the preservation of our environment,” she says. “To be in a group of colleagues who have this depth of experience in environmental law is special. When I talk to colleagues [at other law schools] who teach in the environmental area, they often have no one else on the faculty to talk to. Here we have people in every area. VLS is a distinctive place—it’s small, place-based, passionate, and focused.”

Baker’s interest in the Arctic was partly piqued by her engagement with her students. “When I began teaching Law of the Sea at Harvard, a couple of my students wrote papers on Arctic topics. When I got to VLS in 2007, a student was writing a paper on the Arctic Council, and an Arctic science summit was being held at Dartmouth.” She attended the conference to hear a talk on the Law of the Sea and met someone who suggested she contact Larry Mayer, director of the Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping at the University of New Hampshire. He invited her to join a team of scientists on an icebreaker to map the extended continental shelf of the U.S. They needed help determining what rights the U.S. might have under UNCLOS. 

“The Law of the Sea Treaty is an unbelievable nexus of law and science,” Mayer explains. “The scientists are at a tremendous disadvantage because we don’t understand the law. And lawyers are at a disadvantage because they don’t understand the science. It’s rare to find a lawyer who is willing to immerse herself in the science as Betsy did on the Healy.” 

“We are constantly going back to her,” says Mayer. “She has the knowledge and authority and understands the language we use, but can help us interpret what the law means.”

“I love to see what scientists are doing,” says Baker. “Because if you don’t understand what scientists are doing, you won’t understand policy that relies on science.”

On The Sea

Baker’s first trip to the Arctic in 2008 transformed her. “It’s the most beautiful place I have ever been—back when there was still ice.” She continues, “There was also the beauty of the joint undertaking between a scientific crew of some 30 people and a Coast Guard crew of about 100. As the only lawyer, I was learning a lot about the whole scientific endeavor behind mapping the ocean floor. And the years of study and specialization that each scientist put in before getting there. Every work night there was a science talk. It was eye-opening.” ​

The Law of the Sea Convention relies on science and legal analysis to make enormously consequential determinations. The treaty “sets out very specific rights depending on how far out the continental shelf extends—it gives rights to the sea floor and what’s underneath it. So trillions of dollars are at stake,” explains Baker. “Once a nation demonstrates acceptably where your continental shelf extends it has the say as to who can drill and exploit the shelf resources.” Out on the ice, the scientists were “interpreting the treaty as marine geophysicists, and I interpreted it as a lawyer. It was a great match.”

Baker has become an essential bridge between the worlds of ocean law and marine science. She now serves on the National Academy of Sciences Polar Research Board. In 2012, she spent a year working at the U.S. State Department for the Inter-agency Extended Continental Shelf Task Force, where she coordinated the work of oceanographers, geologists, geographers and lawyers to produce a prototype submission in support of U.S. sovereign rights to the extended continental shelf, whether or not the United States ever becomes party to the Law of the Sea Convention.

Baker says of her time at the State Department, “I learned a lot about how my scholarly work could have practical applications. And as corny as it sounds, it was exciting to serve my country with what I know how to do.”

Brian Israel, an attorney at the State Department, observes, “Betsy has a rare ability to mix a vast knowledge of international legal doctrine with an intricate knowledge of the Arctic. She is devoting her research to questions that policymakers are asking or should be asking, and her research is practical enough to be relevant to the policymaking process.”

Underscoring her commitment to the Arctic, Baker now divides her time between Alaska, where she works on issues of Arctic and ocean law and policy, and Vermont, where she remains on the faculty of Vermont Law School, teaching every few semesters. 

“VLS has been gracious enough to let me maintain my tenure and work here in Alaska,” she says. “So I’m taking my scholarly work and putting it to practical applications closer to the U.S. Arctic. And I’m living where I feel most at home. I’m also able to gain perspective on the work our VLS grads are doing here and in the lower 48.” In Alaska, she points to Peter Van Tuyn JD/MSEL’89, who has devoted much of his career to challenging offshore oil and gas development in the U.S. Arctic; Angel Drobnica MELP’10, renewable energy and fisheries liaison for the Aleutian Pribilof Community Development Association (APICDA); Mike Routhier JD/MSEL’07, who leads the U.S. Army NEPA work in Alaska; Mike O’Brien JD/MSEL’02, counsel for the University of Alaska system; Lisa Mariotti JD’04 of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (ANDVSA); and several alumni with the Alaska Public Defender Agency. “And that only begins to scratch the surface,” Baker says, noting that, with more than 80 graduates in Alaska, VLS has one of the largest law school alumni groups in the state.

For alumni engaged in Baker’s area, ocean law, outside Alaska, she points to Becca Pincus at the Coast Guard Academy; Keisha Sedlacek JD/MELP’11, senior regulatory specialist for The Humane Society of the United States, with a concentration in marine mammal protection; and Sarah Mooney Reiter JD’13, legal and policy analyst at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Baker emphasizes how much VLS students supported her nascent interest in Arctic work, especially through the Institute for Energy and the Environment. She still receives requests for copies of white papers that she, Lisa Campion JD’11/MELP’08, J. Garcia Lomas-Gago LLM’10, Ben Jones JD’12, Keisha Sedlacek JD/MELP’11, Roma Sidortsov JD’08/LLM’11 and Zhen Zhang LLM’11 completed in 2011 comparing offshore oil and gas regulations in Canada, the U.S., Russia, and Greenland.

In addition to her academic work, Baker consults on ocean conservation issues. And she continues to provide background papers that inform international negotiations on the Task Force on Arctic Marine Cooperation, through the Arctic Council, a high-level forum that deals with issues facing governments and indigenous people in the Arctic. The U.S. serves as the rotating chair of the council from 2015 to 2017.

Baker firmly believes that the fate of the world’s most forbidding and remote regions is critical to all of humanity.

“What happens in the Arctic matters to the entire planet,” she insists. “Changes in the Arctic affect how the region regulates our climate; they impact global ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, and show the effects of pollutants from the lower latitudes. It’s a place where we still have a chance to get things right with respect to the rights of indigenous populations across the Arctic. And it is an area that enjoys remarkable cooperation between the Arctic nations and, increasingly, other countries interested in potential opportunities there. The World Economic Forum, very much a market-driven institution, has issued investment principles for the Arctic.

“We have an opportunity to help shape developments in the Arctic in a way that we haven’t in other parts of the globe. There need not be untrammeled development, and won’t be. We have to make sure that safeguards remain, while economic opportunities are made available to the relatively poor communities in the North American Arctic.”

Betsy Baker breaks into a soft laugh when reflecting on the improbable trajectory of her career. “I certainly never dreamed I would be on an icebreaker in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and certainly not as a lawyer.”​

GET INVOLVED

Learn more about Vermont Law School's JD program and the Water and Justice Program. Discover how you can get involved with the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School and advocate for water rights.

INQU​IRE NOW to download a JD Degree Program Planning Guide.​

​“Strengthening legal frameworks for addressing the myriad changes in a warming Arctic has been the primary focus of my research,” ​​​

Betsy Baker
Professor of Law at VLS

An international lawyer and historian, Baker is now a go-to expert on the Arctic. Through her work with the U.S. State Department and the Arctic Council, an international governing body for the Arctic, Baker has played an important role in elevating the status and understanding of the frozen north.