Student’s Arctic Trip Emphasizes Need for Climate Law


In July and August of 2015, Joanna Dafoe ’17 JD/MBA joined a Students on Ice trip as a member of the staff during a trip to the Arctic regions of Greenland and Canada. Students on Ice is a foundation that educates young people about the importance of the polar regions. Dafoe’s role was to share perspectives on climate change law and policy, including the status of international climate change negotiations and opportunities for young people to meaningfully engage with policy back home.

We asked Dafoe to tell us more about her experience.

When did you go and where?

The 2015 Arctic expedition was from July 27 to August 10. We started our expedition in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, followed by six days in the stunning coasts, fjords, and communities of Western Greenland. Mid-way through our trip we crossed the Davis Straight from Greenland to Baffin Island, Nanuvut. We spent the remainder of our time in the Canadian High Arctic, visiting Sirmilik National Park, Pond Inlet, and concluding our trip in one of Canada’s northernmost cities, Resolute Bay.

How many educators and students took part in the program?

As part of the staff team, I was honored to participate on this expedition alongside an incredible group of educators, elders, scientists, authors, and musicians. Some of these individuals include the artist Jolly Atagooyuk from Pangnirtung, Nunavut, who shared the tradition and art of his Inuit culture through printmaking, and Dr. Fred Roots, who has spent more than 70 years studying the polar regions and high mountains. More than 100 young people from around the world were students in the program.

Joanna Dafoe
What surprising things did you see on the trip?

We encountered 22 polar bears on our trip, four bowhead whales swimming in the Davis Strait, and countless icebergs floating off the coast of Greenland. I dedicated one morning on deck to tracking the flight of thick-bulled murres, northern fulmars, black guillemots, and glaucous gulls. We also spent a day with members of the Pond Inlet community on a remote bay of Bylot Island, where they shared with us their traditions of storytelling and drum dancing.

A highlight of the trip occurred late one night when everyone else on the ship was asleep. I stepped out on deck to take in the setting of the midnight sun. Our ship was cruising along the channel of a coastal bird sanctuary. When I looked on the shore, I saw a mother polar bear and her cub looking back in stillness. The moment has stayed with me clearly as a reminder of the need for effective legislation to safeguard our planet.

How does this kind of trip help communicate the importance of climate law and policy?

Visiting the Arctic provided me with a new perspective on my work in the law. Much of the work we do in environmental law takes on a technical nature, and legislation on climate change is not gratified with an immediate causal outcome of “fixing” the climate problem. Visiting the Arctic provided me with a powerful reminder of the need for environmental law to protect a planet with such vast beauty.

How did you decide to come to Yale Law School?

I decided to apply to Yale Law School when I realized that law was at the crux of effective climate policy. I submitted my application when I was a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. After taking Introduction to the Regulatory State taught by Professor Eskridge, I knew I had found an intellectual home here.

What experiences at YLS are informing your career goals?

I had the privilege to work with Professor Doug Kysar as a Teaching Fellow for Yale’s first-ever cross-listed course with the Yale Divinity School, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, and YLS. It was an exciting initiative to engage three disciplines in dialogue to address pressing and seemingly intractable environmental problems.

Over the summer I worked with Professor Dan Esty ’86 on the Yale Climate Change Dialogue, which provided a framework to engage non-state actors in the outcome of the United Nations Paris Climate Agreement. I am continuing to work with Professor Esty as a Teaching Fellow for his class Climate Change and the Quest for Green Energy.

What policy change do you think would make the most impact in terms of climate and what research are you currently working on?

A tax or cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions is needed to address the social and environmental cost of pollution. I have pursued my interest in carbon pricing at YLS through research on the opportunities for a global market-based measure on aviation emissions. Under the supervision of Professor Esty, I wrote my first-year research paper on the policy opportunities and legal implications for a global market-based measure on aviation emissions.

Photos by Martin Lipman