Geopolitics and governance stalemates divide Antarctica

Geopolitics and governance stalemates divide Antarctica

Lisbon, Portugal – The Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference highlighted growing concerns about the precarious state of decision-making in the Antarctic region. During keynote speeches and other panels held in Lisbon at the end of June, scholars heard about the inconsistency between data-based evidence and political agendas within the Antarctic Treaty System and its Environmental Protection Committee.

China, Russia and other Antarctic Treaty states have been accused of rejecting scientific decisions calling for the protection of penguins and the Antarctic seas. This strikes at the heart of consensus-based governance in Antarctica, according to Professor Kees Pastmeier, a leading polar law expert at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Such decisions, which have become increasingly politicized, make it difficult to manage a wilderness that is still relatively pristine compared to the rest of the world, Pastmaier told a group of fellow researchers gathered at the University of Lusofuna in Lisbon. The conference was attended by 110 humanities and social sciences scholars from Australia, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey and a host of other countries with an interest in Antarctica.

Not just China and Russia

The consensus—no objection—is not only being challenged by China and Russia, Pastemeier hastened to add: “Many different countries,” including the United States, were also involved in thwarting the resolutions.

However, Antarctica is increasingly deteriorating under both internal and external pressures. The latter has brought in plastic waste, he said, and in the four years to 2023, viewership has increased by 40% to more than 100,000 heads.

The Price of Dissent: Gridlock Divides Antarctica on Evidence-Based Data and Political Agendas

The conference of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research was hosted at the end of June in Lisbon
Lusophone University. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

With the increase in tourism, ice is also retreating at record low levels, and forecasts point to the deterioration of Antarctic ecosystems within decades. during this century65% of Antarctica’s native species face possible eradication from the planet.

Working in the best interests of Antarctic conservation requires appreciating the importance of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, which governs the region and belongs to no one while the agreement is in effect indefinitely, according to Professor Akiho Shibata of Kobe University.

Legal Obligations: Consider the best available data

Citing China’s interpretations of the treaty text to challenge scientific recommendations, Shibata questioned a system of governance based on science that repeatedly rejects peer-reviewed data. Evidence may not always leave every stone unturned, but then a treaty environmental protocol accepts that effective science—as a dynamic system of investigation—doesn’t work that way.

The Madrid Protocol, which came into effect at the end of the 1990s, describes the environmental laws of Antarctica and legally obliges the treaty’s 29 signatories, which include China and Russia, to “make use of the best available scientific and technical advice.”

SCAR and the Committee on Environmental Protection play a key advisory role to the treaty’s consultative meetings on how data should interpret decisions and policies.

“There is a clear delineation of liability,” said Shibata, the legal expert who directs the Polar Cooperation Research Center in Kobe. “The advisory meeting can refuse, but should not question the substantive content of this expert scientific and environmental advice.”

However, at the Berlin meeting in 2022, China, not Russia, blocked efforts to save the emperor penguin by arguing that the flightless birds of Antarctica were not threatened – Based on unscientific polar bear data That live in the North Pole, the other end of the globe. (Scientific studies widely indicate that emperors face extinction by the year 2100.)

The Helsinki Consultative Meeting, which took place earlier in June, emphasized the challenges and complexities of managing Antarctica. Pastmeier and Shibata point out that tensions between scientific recommendations and political interests were evident here as well, raising questions about the effectiveness of a consensus-based approach.

This approach is complicated by the fact that Antarctic nations widely advocate the “rational use” of natural resources while also grappling with ecological collapse.

Some commenters cited incomplete and unresolved data Hunting and territorial concerns To explain the hesitation of China and Russia. State officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Antarctica connects all major oceans

In her keynote address, University of Lisbon Professor Sandra Palau stressed Antarctica’s status as the main hub between all the major oceans, emphasizing the importance of its strategic location to the major powers.

The polar geopolitical expert emphasized the need to avoid provocations and said that activities in this region have significant implications for the delicate global balance of power.

University of Lisbon Professor Sandra Palau during her keynote address at the SCAR conference. The academy’s speech delved into what it called the “provocative” geopolitics of the Antarctic. (Photo: Tiara Walters)

For example, the mining ban in Antarctica does not have an expiration date, but from 2048 onwards it can be reviewed, so this ban is not immune from expiration. This has caused constant confusion and may explain what it looks like to Russia Unparalleled search for metal without formal recognition by the treaty bodiesthat did not answer our questions. Russia He claims that these activities are scientificbut the treaty does not define what a flag is.

Palau told The Daily Maverick that “Russia does this dual type of activity,” but warned that “one interpretation of the law, the written law” could lead to “an escalation of the situation in Antarctica and maybe we’ll also face the use of force in that region.”

The conference discussed other conservation issues, including how decisions might consider a growing field of research – whether Antarctic nature should have similar rights to humans.

The consensus – It’s not the only game in town

While the Lisbon debate was underway, the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources in Antarctica faced further setbacks at Chile’s special meeting to create marine protected areas — due to “two nations” blocking consensus since 2017.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a non-profit environmental group with exclusive observer status, has criticized the commission’s decision system as ineffective.

did not go so far as to name these two countries, Reported to be China and Russia. (In recent years, Norway has also exercised its veto power.)

Consensus isn’t the only game in town, Greenpeace argued in its critique of Chile’s disappointing negotiations.

The widely beloved Oceans Treaty, which was adopted at the United Nations in June and allows for a vote, may offer an alternative approach.

Unanimous decision-making system in the commission Basically broken. Decisions under the Global Oceans Treaty, “allow for a vote on decisions,” said Chris Thorne of Greenpeace’s Oceans Campaign.


It may be necessary to review CEPIC’s performance of consensus processes, which Bastmeijer and Shibata describe as a cornerstone of governance.

A lesser-known fact, Pastmeier noted, is that majority opinions do not always reach the consultative meeting, even though protocol provides for this reporting option.

“There is a need to reconsider the role of the bodies of the Antarctic Treaty System,” stressed Pastemeyer, who equally praised the panel for doing a “good job” in addressing cross-impact studies.

To address these concerns, Pastemaker, Shibata, and experts from various universities and research centers issued a paper last week Pre-publication research draft on reaching consensus. The peer-reviewed draft proposes solutions to enhance decisions, particularly in the context of tourism in Antarctica.

Pastemeyer, in Lisbon, had scathing advice for those accused of arming the consensus.

By repeatedly holding on to the key in the slow wheel of consensus, especially at a time of global environmental urgency, the state risks achieving a private target.

“Think of the system as a whole,” Pastmeier suggested. “If you obstruct consensus, what price do you have to pay for it?” DM

Read our other recent coverage of the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultation in Helsinki:

Helsinki explained: Antarctica’s mining ban could face collapse, but let’s imagine everything is cold

Helsinki heat struggle: Ignoring Russian oil/gas research exposes holes in Antarctic climate declaration

The South African opposition is stepping up calls for government accountability over Russian exploration in Antarctica

“Artivism”: Extinction Rebellion calls for a “permanent ban” on mining in Antarctica

Ukrainian Captain: I come from a family of sailors and I long for Nosfera to return home

The co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raises the “ice curtain” at the Antarctic Climate Meeting in Finland

Helsinki or high water? The summit deals with the desperate battle for Antarctica

No more Mister Ice Guys: Russia, South Africa fail to take a stand on climate at Finland’s Antarctic Summit

Tiara Walters is a full-time correspondent for the Burning Planet unit at The Daily Maverick. Walters’ travel to Lisbon and Helsinki was made possible, in part, with the support of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Researchthe Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Finnish Embassy in South Africa.

To read all about The Gathering: Earth Edition recently published by the Daily Maverick, click here here.


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