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Antarctica is still a frontier - but it is rapidly changing. Eugene Kaspersky/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

In Conversation: what does the future hold for Antarctica?

Antarctica is a continent less suited to human habitation than any other. Temperatures rise above freezing only briefly on the northern Antarctic peninsula. At the coast mean temperatures range between -10°C and -30°C. In the high inland they are as low as - 60°C.

But it’s not just the hostile climate that makes the Antarctic stand out. It is a place undergoing rapid environmental change. The measured effects of global warming are incontestable, it is only the speed of these changes which is unclear. And, with the geopolitical interest in Antarctica intensifying, the question of sovereignty, and who might control the continent, becomes more important.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr, CC BY
Seven countries have made territorial claims on Antarctica. CIA Factbook/Wikimedia

Under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 Antarctica is the first continent to move beyond the modern doctrine of sovereign territorial states: “No acts or activities taking place while the present Treaty is in force”, states Article IV, “shall constitute a basis for asserting, supporting or denying a claim to territorial sovereignty in Antarctica or create any rights of sovereignty in Antarctica.”

Thus far the Antarctic Treaty system has produced a peaceful regime for scientific and multi-State cooperation. But how robust are these arrangements? If the rules cannot hold, what alternative forms of political rule might emerge?

The Antarctica Futures project at the University of Sydney is seeking to address these issues. Recently we brought together a group of academics and practitioners to discuss questions regarding sovereignty and Antarctica: how it manifests itself now, and how it might into the future. The following is a excerpt of a round table discussion of these issues. You can read the full discussion here, together with an essay written prior to the meeting by Professor John Keane of the Sydney Democracy Network here.

Has the Antarctic Treaty worked?

John Keane: Sovereignty: it’s a profoundly political concept, to be handled with care, especially because the principle has theological origins. It later referred to the power of state rulers, especially in crises and wars, to decide and enforce what is to be done, if necessary by robbing opponents of their liberties, properties, livelihoods and lives.

Looking back, the 1959 Antarctic Treaty made possible the construction of a complex new architecture, a post-sovereign polity unknown to the political science textbooks. But without permanent residents or citizens, or standing armies and police forces, what kind of polity is Antarctica? Most observers pass over the question in silence.

A child of the Treaty, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is a messy, clumsy overlapping kaleidoscope of institutions, a compound polity that has no fixed address (even its annual parliament moves locations) and lacks all the paraphernalia of territorial states. Not to be underestimated is the way the Antarctica polity has found new ways of politically including and representing the biosphere within human affairs. Sovereignty was always associated with the human domination of nature; in Antarctica, by contrast, people and politics have deferred to the interests of science operating in an environment perceived to be highly fragile.

A glimpse of Antarctica. Francisco Martins/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Tim Stephens: For me, there are three forces working to revive the doctrine of sovereignty. The continent is experiencing profound biophysical challenges largely driven by climate change. These are more than the effects of ice melt: they include the acidification effects on the oceans and in them krill and fish stocks.

The signs are not good: climate change attracts astonishingly little attention in the ATS, certainly by comparison to the Arctic. Yet climate change and ocean acidification could undermine key elements of the Antarctic ecosystem that have been the focus of cooperation, most obviously krill that are threatened by ocean acidification. Our understanding of some of these dynamics is at an early stage. But it is clear that they stand to have an effect well beyond the southern oceans (with sea level rise affecting global population centres and melting and ocean acidification affecting the food chain).

Secondly, a Treaty designed to provide an agreement for the future care and use of the continent and avoid territorial and other disputes at a time of the Cold War is – understandably – a very different thing to an agreement that will be fit for purpose for the coming environmental and geopolitical challenges of this century.

And, finally, what of Australia’s role? The Australian Antarctic Territory is more than two-thirds the size of the Australian mainland. Australia will need to do more than simply continue to assert sovereignty claims, or to be a passive, cooperative player. This is especially the case in respect of Antarctic climate change impacts.

Yet the Abbott government outwardly denies climate science, dismantles climate expertise, and is eroding our national scientific capability and credibility. Piecemeal Antarctic funding will do nothing to make up for the wholesale diminution of Australia’s scientific capacities in the CSIRO and beyond.

And Australia appears to have no coherent sense of how to respond to the changing geopolitical interest in Antarctica from powers such as China, Russia, India and South Korea.

Julia Jabour: Even if Antarctic governance has challenged some key metaphors, why does this matter? And what good and harm has it done? The important question is whether the Treaty and the system that it has given rise to over the past 50 years or so has been effective. By and large, it has.

The Treaty has done two key things extraordinarily well: it has protected the continent from commercial exploitation, and it has set aside sovereign claims that were a real source of international tension post 1945.

It is incumbent on anyone who criticises the working of the current system to set out what sort of system might prove a more effective way for states and peoples to take decisions about the continent. What would any system or approach include that isn’t already achieved through the current Treaty system?

Tony Press: Yes, the Antarctic Treaty System has been effective. Led by the governments of Mitterrand and Hawke, and talk of Antarctica as a “world park”, it was for instance instrumental in agreeing the 1991 Madrid Protocol: perhaps the most far-reaching and effective environmental provision in any Treaty, it states that Antarctica is a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. Since the late 1970s, some NGO players have envisioned world heritage status for Antarctica, but that’s already in effect been achieved. Needless to say, the strength of the Treaty System depends heavily on the domestic politics of the parties to the Treaty.

The aurora australis over Antarctica. Chantal Steyn/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

An Antarctic mining boom?

Alan Hemmings: Behind the veil of the ATS there are a number of countries, and China, whilst being the one that attracts most attention, is just one, who are asserting “soft” power by investing significant resources in new infrastructure that they control.

The Antarctic Treaty System is a product of the Cold War. But we now live in a very different world. And although a number of States believe that that Treaty system remains the most effective way of conducting the affairs of the continent, pretentions to sovereignty are still alive. And just because the system has been operating for more than 50 years that does not mean it is not vulnerable to States asserting their interests, whatever these are.

Territoriality needs to be understood as not just the sense of entitlement of those countries overtly stating a territorial claim, but others who are beneficiaries of the particular historic configuration and architecture of power built around the ATS.

Tony Press: The threat to the Antarctic by new powers is, in my view, overstated. Recent public commentary has raised the issue of “mining post-2048”. Much of this commentary is ill-founded.

The Antarctic mining ban does not expire. In my view there is little chance of the prohibition on Antarctic mining being challenged from within or outside the Antarctic Treaty.

None-the-less, many commentators see the increased interest by some countries in Antarctica as their assertion of a basis for claim, yet the provisions of Article IV will apply for as long as the Antarctic Treaty exists. And it won’t be easy to amend the Treaty: that requires unanimity of all signatories.

So, as we say, “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?”. Within the workings of the ATS there is very little appetite from any country to fundamentally change the system. One should not be too complacent, but it is likely that this situation will continue.

Emperor penguins depend on the ice to breed. Martha de Jong-Lantink/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Changing environment

Chris Turney: The environmental dynamics in the Antarctic appear to be occurring at a pace beyond anything that was thought possible only a few years ago.

These dynamics have the capacity not only to completely shift deliberations under the ATS they stand to affect people living thousands of kilometers away from the Continent.

Krill are threatened by ocean acidification. Norkrill/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Perhaps just as climate change is a problem which respects no boundaries (created by greenhouse emissions from anywhere and affecting the environment everywhere), so responding to the political and perhaps constitutional implications of these changes is beyond the handling capacity of the ATS. The recent reports from NASA that the Thwaites Glacier on the Antarctic Peninsula is undergoing rapid melting which is most likely unstoppable, further melting and the possible collapse of Antarctic ice sheets will surely have enormous issues for the Treaty.

And with Southern Ocean warming being shown to play a significant role in destabilizing the Antarctic ice sheets, monitoring of the Southern Ocean beyond the Antarctic landmass must surely play a major role in future Treaty activities.

The impact of Antarctic ice melt is global. Given this surely more effort needs to be made to secure the involvement signatories of countries with no immediate research activity on the continent.

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