Interlude: The Arctic’s Mirror Image? Juggling Politics and Climate Change in Antarctica

Argentine Foreign Ministry Building, Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
In May of this year, the forty-first Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting will be held in Buenos Aires, where the Treaty Secretariat is based. This will be the first such event since the landmark treaty meeting in Beijing, last year. While Antarctica is not experiencing the same political trials currently facing the Arctic, due both to the continent’s lack of a permanent population and to an extensive legal framework which prohibits most economic activities, the South Pole is hardly a politics-free region.

As in the Arctic, climate change is becoming an issue, with one glaring example the creation of a massive iceberg caused by a crack in the Larsen C glacier in the Weddell Sea during July 2017. The iceberg, designated ‘A-68’, had a surface area of about 5800 square kilometres when it broke free from the main glacier. The loss of surface ice in Antarctica may have a far more acute impact on the global environment than the melting of the Arctic ice caps. As a recent report described, melting Antarctic glaciers may have begun a process which would include a rise in sea levels, a feedback effect which would cause further ice melting, and accelerated climate change caused by the large-scale introduction of fresh water into the oceans. It has been estimated that melting of the entire Antarctica ice fields would result in sea level rises of almost sixty metres.

Climate change and the environmental protection of the continent are the main concerns of the members of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), which includes the original Antarctic Treaty signed in 1959 as well as subsequent protocols. Among the consultative parties of the treaty, meaning governments which have conducted sufficient research activity in Antarctica, are Arctic states including Finland, Norway, Russia Sweden and the United States, as well as Arctic Council observers such as China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Other Arctic states such as Canada and Denmark are non-consultative members of the Treaty, meaning that their research profiles are not yet sufficient to engage in decision-making activities. Iceland, also a non-consultative member, was welcomed to the Antarctic Treaty in 2015.

Political map of Antarctica [The World Factbook (PDF at CIA Factbook) [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The ATS also serves to place previous land claims in Antarctica in abeyance. Before the 1959 Treaty, seven countries, (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom), had made specific land claims on the continent, with the Argentine, British and Chilean claims overlapping. As well, the United States and the then-Soviet Union and Russia reserving the future right to make claims as well. The Treaty system also includes conventions on marine life, seals and other animal and plant life as well as the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol, which entered into force in 1998. Article VII of the protocol specifies that ‘any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited.’ Unlike in the Arctic, the legal framework in Antarctica continues to discourage resource extraction.

Under the terms of the Madrid Protocol, while the agreement will be subject to review in 2048, (but will not automatically terminate), there remains the question of consequences should the agreement erode in the coming decades and whether a door might be opened for a ‘resource scramble’ on the continent in the coming decades.

The Buenos Aires Antarctica Treaty meeting, which was originally scheduled to take place in Quito, Ecuador, before budget constraints prompted a change in venue, will be of a shorter duration than in previous years due to the last minute change in location. The gathering is expected to address recent environmental concerns as well as growing interest in Antarctic tourism and the issue of bio-prospecting. This refers to the studies of flora and fauna, (including micro-organisms), on the continent, work providing data which, according to Article III.1 of the original Antarctic Treaty, should be freely shared.

Argentina flag over Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
During last year’s Antarctica Treaty meeting in Beijing, the government of China published its first Antarctica governmental white paper [in Chinese], and also hosted a breakout session during the event entitled ‘Our Antarctica: Protection and Utilisation,’ which included speakers from Australia, Argentina, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom. The event was widely seen as China’s ‘coming out party’ which advertised the country’s growing polar expertise.

During a keynote speech by Zhang Gaoli, then-Vice Premier of China’s State Council, at the Beijing meeting, there were hints that the country would also be preparing for expanded economic activities take place in Antarctic in the future. In addition to highlighting Beijing’s central role in Antarctic governance and environmental protection initiatives, Mr Zhang also offered a five-point proposal for China’s future policies on the continent. These included advocating the peaceful use of the Antarctica and the establishment of a community to achieve that goal, perpetuating and improving the ATS, expanding the means to develop ‘equal-footed’ cooperation, maintaining the freedom of scientific development in Antarctica, and ensuring the environmental protection of the region.

In 1983, China signed on to the main Antarctic Treaty, and shortly afterwards began to construct its own research stations on the continent, the first being the Great Wall Station (Changcheng zhan 长城站), on the Fildes Peninsula, completed in 1985. Four bases are currently in operation, with the latest, Taishan Station (Taishan zhan 泰山站) situated on Queen Elizabeth Land in Eastern Antarctica, opening in February 2014. A fifth base [pdf] is to be situated on Inexpressible Island (Nanyan dao 难言岛) near the shore of the Ross Sea (Luosi Hai 罗斯海). Unlike Taishan, it would have the ability to stay operational throughout the winter season, and is expected to be fully operational by 2022. According to a report in the China Daily this week, preparations for the fifth base have been completed, including temporary housing and power and communications facilities.

Southern Hemisphere map mosaic at Te Papa, Wellington, New Zealand [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Chinese activities in Antarctica have been subject to scrutiny in some quarters. For example, concerns in Oceania about Beijing’s growing Antarctic interests have also been looped into cooling relations between China and Australia over the past year, with some alarmist Australian reports suggesting that China is positioning itself to engage in economic activities, (such as mining), and potentially military policies in Antarctica in the future. This despite negligible evidence of either as well as the ATS for which China has joined other states in pledging support.

As well, calls have been made within China over the past year for improved regulation of the country’s activities on the continent, especially in light of growing tourist numbers which reached approximately 5300, (second only to the number of American tourists), as compared to only one hundred in 2005.

Downtown Buenos Aires [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
As more countries are developing polar policies, the Antarctic joins the Arctic in in being subject to greater political scrutiny. Yet hovering over that issue is the ongoing question of the potential longterm effects on the rest of the world of climate change at both poles. As questions are appearing regarding the future of Arctic governance and the potential need for new regimes which could address Arctic economics and perhaps even security, the South Pole might act as a useful model during these debates.