The sublime beauty of Antarctica is on a par with its bone-chilling hostility – the uninhabited continent is the world’s coldest, driest and windiest. The facts that describe it are inevitably mind-boggling; its ice holds 90% of the world’s fresh water, but scientists have begun to question how long this will be the case. The Antarctic Peninsula, the continent’s northernmost point, is thought to be one of the most rapidly warming areas on Earth. Stirring up even more alarm among climate pundits, an iceberg twice size of Luxembourg split off an ice shelf on the peninsula in mid-July this year.
Antarctica is the barometer for the world’s climate, as changes happening on the frozen continent eventually ripple across the world. As such, the continent does not portend a positive scenario for the global ecosystem. The evidence of climate change both within and beyond the Antarctic continent is undeniable, but finding a way to accommodate differing interests whilst attempting to find a solution to this issue is proving to be an intricate problem.
Climatic impact on scientific research
For many years, Antarctica was effectively the world’s largest scientific laboratory. The Antarctic Treaty, the governance backbone of the continent, has been signed by 53 countries since 1961, all of whom committed to promote peace and scientific investigation in Antarctica. In accordance with the treaty, each signatory designs a personalised National Antarctic Programme. Currently, 30 countries, including those as far away as Pakistan, Japan and Bulgaria, operate research stations on the continent.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) started ringing the alarm bells about the deleterious effects of climate change on the Antarctic as early as 2001. It was not until the late 2000s, however, that climate change appeared on the agenda of the Antarctic Treaty in a capacity other than research. Now, resilience planning, including establishing a network of protected areas and introducing biosecurity measures, has become an integral part of Antarctic research missions.
The former is a forward-looking measure that protects particularly vulnerable sites from disproportionate scientific interest and designates specially protected species. For instance, the recently established Ross Sea marine protected area is a testament to the efficacy of resilience planning. This sees 1.5m square kilometres of ocean gain protection from fishing for the next 35 years. This untouched marine ecosystem is home to a variety of rare sea species including minke whales, Adelie penguins and Antarctic petrels. Protecting this biodiversity is seen by environmentalists as imperative. Further, biosecurity measures ensure that Antarctica is guarded from species that are non-native to the continent.
Additionally, climate change mitigation strategies have been woven into the fabric of all Antarctica-related meetings. They include a diverse spectrum of solutions that vary from introducing renewable energy systems at research stations, and logistics and transport coordination for energy saving.
Science fails to drive the agenda
However, while Antarctic actors display unwavering awareness of climate change and its impacts on the continent, this awareness does not go hand-in-hand with influencing global decision-making. Antarctic climate management encapsulates the general problem that clouds global climate governance: despite the common recognition, stakeholders choose different means to pursue the same goal.
The spectrum of approaches to climate change in Antarctica includes merging it with geopolitical ambitions, looking at it solely through the lens of scientific research or promoting advocacy and campaigning. Lack of unified vision along with dispersed strategies erode much-needed attempts to tackle climate change collectively.
Competing interests: Chile in Antarctica
In Chile, politicians, scientists and NGOs find that their interests in Antarctica do not always align. The former react to climate change with a set of discrete local mitigation measures, mostly focusing on energy conservation. Simultaneously, the Chilean government prioritises climate change research as a geopolitical tool for asserting their influence in Antarctica.
Last year, Chile hosted the 39th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, a large-scale gathering of all international stakeholders that sets the trajectory for the future governance of the continent. The Chilean Minister for Foreign Affairs, Heraldo Muñoz, took the opportunity to stress his country’s position in the international Antarctic context, and highlighted its future plans and endeavours with regard to the scientific collaboration and environmental protection of Antarctica.
The idea of strengthening the position of Chile as a country with “polar projection” in “a clean, but useful Antarctica” dominated his speech. Muñoz’ notion of a ‘useful’ Antarctica refers specifically to knowledge extraction, which benefits mankind while helping solidify Chile’s formidable presence on Antarctica.
While they stress the importance of well-substantiated, rigorous research for future climate policies, scientists do not often see themselves as agents of climate governance, and this detachment from policy-making has been the subject of multiple debates. This pattern repeats itself in the Chilean Antarctic context, as scientists strive to collect more evidence to ground their claims while policy-makers welcome precise conclusions to foster immediate decisions.
Which actor is dominant?
Jericho spoke to one climate scientist, who preferred to remain anonymous, who claimed that climate change “is mostly happening in the peninsula, not around the continent … I don’t like that they project the evidence from the peninsula over the whole continent. And they take decisions without having all the necessary information.” A call for further research to be undertaken before drawing conclusions is a staple of scientific practice, and this caution has led to others being allowed to drive the agenda.
Much of this burden has been shouldered by NGOs. They seek to politicise climate change in Antarctica while advocating for more mitigation and adaptation measures locally. Antarctic decision-makers have noted the role that NGOs have played in helping to draw public attention to the effects of climate change, as well as in mobilising the treaty’s stakeholders.
The first strategy followed by NGOs involves slashing carbon emissions through energy efficiency measures. Adaptation implies that climate change impacts should be taken into account when management decisions about fisheries and protected areas and ecosystem resilience build-up are undertaken. Lastly, while recognising the flaws in the channels of scientific communication, NGO actors stress the importance of streamlined research work in Antarctica for more effective climate change governance administration on the international level.
Is there any solution?
With such a rich tapestry of engagement with climate change matters and different approaches to its interpretation, the issue of climate governance inevitably becomes divisive. Ultimately, fragmented vision paves way for fragmented dialogue, which in turn brings about a stalemate terms of tangible policy action. The paralysis is ignited globally by an even broader range of actors, which certainly does not help resolve the existing misunderstanding.
It is evident that more alignment is needed between different types of actor in order to successfully address climate change. As long as the approach remains differentiated and uncoordinated, climate knowledge will continue its steady march and climate action, just like on the Antarctic Peninsula, will make very little headway.