Antarctica, famously, is governed not by a sovereign state but through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). The currency for attaining Consultative Party status within the ATS (which gives a state a vote at Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings, where decisions on the continent are taken) is “substantial research activity.” Exactly what this means is unclear, and there’s good reason to ask whether the “substantial activity” part can outshine the “research” part given the importance of logistics to getting parties into the field (and keeping them there). Nevertheless, the basic equation is that scientific activity is the means through which states earn a seat at the big Antarctic table.
This is a view that’s been around since the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58, an eighteen-month burst of global research that produced amongst other things the Sputnik launch and the US research station at the South Pole. For the duration of the IGY science was decoupled from sovereignty, so that research in Antarctic couldn’t be taken to either affirm or undermine a sovereignty claim in legal terms. The IGY also helped establish a view of the Antarctic as a kind of enormous laboratory — a space within which truths about the nature of global geophysical systems could be revealed, in addition to a place worth studying in its own right. And this was widely accepted, in large part because practically everyone in the world recognized Antarctica as remote from world affairs. There were no people for whom was a a homeland, no air or navigation routes, no realistically viable prospects for extractive industry, and very few military-strategic dimensions. So why not just leave it to the scientists?
The laboratory metaphor has persisted into the present. The Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection, which came into force in 1998, establishes Antarctica as an environment to be rigorously protected from pollution or contamination from north of 60 degrees. But the global nature of geophysical processes, from ocean circulation to atmospheric carbon levels, means that in practice it’s impossible to insulate Antarctica from certain changes — changes that I argue undermine the premise of the laboratory metaphor. Because it’s no longer just the rest of the world intruding on Antarctica, but Antarctica possibly intruding on the rest of the world. Greenhouse gas emissions cause global heating, which in turn melts polar ice, which in turn raises sea levels and potentially disrupts ocean circulation. Far from being distant and irrelevant, Antarctica and its massive ice sheets are now regarded as potentially existential threats to livelihoods far to the north. Antarctica isn’t just a laboratory. It’s also a conduit through which greenhouse gases produce rising sea levels.
This contradiction has been gnawing away at me for some time and I finally vented a half-baked objection to it at a conference in 2019. What if instead of awarding seats at the Antarctic table to the countries who did most science, we instead gave the seats to the countries who were most affected by the changes Antarctic melting would wreak, and thus have a more meaningful stake in the continent? Isn’t global warming a game changer in that it makes Antarctica directly relevant to the world in a way it wasn’t before, and shouldn’t this be recognized in its governance structure? As I worked through the idea I realized that it’s going to be awfully hard to make such a system work because the remedy for sea level rise for Kiribati or a Bangladesh isn’t control over Antarctica, but rather control over greenhouse gas emissions in the global north. But there’s still an important issue to address. If Antarctica is no longer this laboratory in splendid isolation from the rest of the world, does that mean countries like Australia, Russia, Norway, or the US that contribute more than their share to global carbon emissions through either exports or domestic consumption have some self-reflection to do? As I put it in the conclusion:
To take meaningful steps to control emissions, and to reduce change in and from Antarctica, would be a statement of intent that a continent reserved for science and peace cannot be allowed to become a conduit for conflict and destruction. Otherwise the moral standing of the system risks erosion even if the CPs continue to diligently and creatively conduct quality research in Antarctica. If the magnitude of harms caused by Antarctic ice sheets melting is as great as predicted, it will be entirely fair to ask why the states which contributed most to that melting also retained privileged positions at the Antarctic decision-making table all along.
You can read the pre-publication version of the paper here (open access!) It’s coming out soon in the Geographical Journal. My particular thanks to Alejandra Mancilla, first for organizing the workshop at which I got to inflict my ideas on a sympathetic group when they were still rather fuzzy, and whose razor-sharp thinking helped me tremendously as I prepared the final text.