Antarctica: Why Should We Care?



Professor Martin Seigert, Co-Director, Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment, Imperial College, delivered the 2015 Gordon Manley lecture at Royal Holloway this week.

Martin Siegert is a very distinguished glaciologist, and a former Philip Leverhulme Prize holder and Martha T. Muse Prize winner for excellence in Antarctic science and policy. When not working on glaciological projects, including the NERC funded Lake Ellsworth Consortium, Martin worked with other colleagues on a Leverhulme Trust funded project on an inter-disciplinary project on the history of radio-echo sounding of Antarctica.

His 2015 lecture entitled ‘How is Antarctica changing and why should we care?’ was not only timely but very much in keeping with the late Professor Gordon Manley who wrote extensively about climate but was also a contemporary at Cambridge (before taking up a chair at Bedford College) with the distinguished polar geographer and inaugural director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Frank Debenham. In the Manley papers held at the University of Cambridge, there is at least one box outlining his early interests in Iceland and Greenland.

As the world’s only continent without an indigenous human population, it is often represented as cold, bleak, remote and far removed from global political, economic, and cultural concerns. While any visitor to the Antarctic might affirm that it can be cold and bleak, especially in the winter season, it is also a remarkable place when it comes biodiversity and human activity, both scientific and touristic. The Antarctic Peninsula region is popular with visitors and scientists alike. At one stage nearly 50,000 people were visiting the Antarctic, most of them by ship.

Antarctica is also connected to the wider world. We use terms like ‘global common’ to describe places like the Antarctic, the earth’s atmosphere, the deep ocean and the moon. Due to their size, remoteness, and protean qualities in the case of the earth’s atmosphere they have been formally incorporated into our political system through treaty-based governance. We have, for example, the Moon Treaty dating from 1979, which specifies that the Moon does not belong to any one particular nation-state. We describe these spaces as areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ).

The global commons are also essential elements to debates about sustainable development and even life on earth itself. How we treat and manage the world’s oceans and the earth’s atmosphere is absolutely integral to debates about a warming world, and a planet with a population approaching eight billion with resource needs and by-products such as pollution and wastage.

Antarctica is an unusual global common. Unlike other global commons, it is locked in a long-standing territorial dispute. Seven states, the so-called claimant states of Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom believe that parts of the polar continent and marine domain fall under their national jurisdiction. Two other states, Russia and the United States, have reserved the right to make their own claims in the future. Every other member of the international community rejects those seven claims, and by association those reserved claims.

We have at present a treaty-based system of governance for Antarctica, namely the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and associated legal instruments. It entered into force in June 1961 and the treaty specified that Antarctica should be a zone of peace, free from nuclear testing and military activity. Science and international co-operation was promoted as the ideal practices (and associated values) for Antarctica. Signed in the midst of the Cold War, it remains a major diplomatic achievement. In 1991, a Protocol on Environmental Protection was signed which built on the Treaty to ensure that the spectre of mining in particular was prohibited under Article 7.

While there is much to celebrate in the case of Antarctic co-operation, there is growing interest in the resource value of the polar continent and Southern Ocean. Fishing and whaling have been divisive issues for interested parties. Australia and Japan have been at loggerheads over the emotive issue of ‘scientific whaling’.

More worryingly, illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing remains a problem with an array of flag states, coastal states, landing states, fishing states and trans-national companies and criminal organizations. China, Spain, Korea and Russia would like to increase fishing rather than conservation in the Southern Ocean. While others are suspected of using recent proposals for extended marine protected areas (MPAs) to consolidate their sovereign interests in the Southern Ocean (e.g. Australia and New Zealand). The failure to secure consent in 2014-15 on proposals for MPAs in Eastern Antarctica and the Ross Sea remains instructive. It may well be that Russia will not support MPAs because of the geopolitical fall out from the Ukrainian crisis. Antarctica is not isolated from wider global geopolitics.

The Antarctic region does face a series of profound challenges, which go beyond fish and whales however. Geographically, they vary in scope and intensity; from ongoing and geographically varied climate change, with associated worries about ice sheet stability and oceanic acidification, to how to manage issues such as fishing, whaling, scientific activity, non-living resource exploitation, biological prospecting and tourism. All of these activities are managed in a legal no man’s land, where national and international rules and regulations crisscross the polar continent and Southern Ocean.

Professor Seigert’s lecture was very timely. We should care about Antarctica. What happens in Antarctica does not stay in Antarctica. And what happens elsewhere in the world has the ability to affect Antarctica as well. The 2015 Gordon Manley lecture ended on a stark warning to all of us about what will happen to life on earth if we end up experiencing a world without ice. It could make matters such as IUU fishing look small fry.

Klaus Dodds


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