• Global human activities are eroding the isolation of the Antarctic region in major ways, melting the continent's ice sheets and influencing weather.
  • Regulatory decisions about the Antarctic Treaty System grow more difficult.
  • Without hitting ambitious targets at COP26, Antarctica will significantly disrupt global systems.

Antarctica can seem impossibly remote from our daily lives. With the exception of the occasional lovable penguin in pop culture, we tend to not think about it much.

In some ways, that can be a good thing – and it’s due in large part to successful governance over the years.

Now, however, the lynchpin of that governance – including important aspects of the region’s environmental stewardship – is under strain, as recent meetings reveal.

The Antarctic Treaty System, dominated by the Antarctic Treaty itself, has been in force for 60 years, resulting in effective governance of this international space. The continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean have seen lasting peace with no formal military presence, and remains the only region on Earth dedicated to peace and science.

But if the path forward isn’t carefully charted, the consequences for our daily lives will be profound.

Isolation compromised

Global human activities are eroding the isolation of the Antarctic region in two major ways.

The cumulative effects of human greenhouse gas emissions are melting the continent’s ice sheets and changing its influence on our weather. Sea level rise may be as high as 2 metres by the end of this century, owing in large part to Antarctic ice sheet change; Antarctic ice sheets are coming to us by way of coastal inundation. Similarly, weather events over the southern continents, such as Australia’s south-eastern heatwaves and droughts, are directly influenced by changes occurring in the Antarctic.

Antarctic sea ice concentration for September 2020 and February 2021, with the median extent for each month (1981-2010) outlined in yellow. Credit: The Earth Observatory
Antarctic sea ice concentration for September 2020 and February 2021, with the median extent for each month (1981-2010) outlined in yellow.
Image: The Earth Observatory

Science on, tourism to and fishing interest around the continent have also increased profoundly. More people are now visiting the continent and its surrounding oceans, undertaking a wider range of scientific, extractive and leisure activities, than ever before. Just 60 years ago, travelling to the continent required months if not years of preparation and months of travel. Now, one can travel there and back for a day excursion.

Little of the continent remains untouched and much of it not as well protected from human interventions as it should be. Unsurprisingly, both wildlife and humans prefer the continent’s small, ice-free areas. Few marine protected areas have been agreed on, yet fishing continues to be of major interest.

Consensus disrupted

The interactions between changing climates and growing human activities make regulatory decisions about the region more difficult. Decisions with an expected efficacy over many years are now proving to need a great deal more dynamism. What works today may lose its usefulness tomorrow.

Increasingly, these decisions have to navigate the complexities of rapidly changing conservation requirements, legitimate scientific activities and geopolitically driven interests that have little to do with either, though may be couched in the language of both.

Conservation decisions must be dynamic because systems and wildlife are changing in response to changing environments. Species move in response to changing environments and protections must move with them. Scientific investigations are necessary to help reduce uncertainty about ice sheet and climate changes so that society is better prepared for what is coming. The global energy trajectory suggests that, without hitting ambitious targets at COP26, Antarctica will significantly disrupt global systems.

Yet those involved in decision-making in the Antarctic Treaty System face increasing difficulties in reaching decisions – decisions that are necessary to convey the significance of Antarctic systems to the broader global policy environment, identify the responses required to deal with and convey the importance of climate change, and to secure the future of Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems.

The most recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting report reflects this clearly. On the one hand, “Parties highlighted the utility of close cooperation, consensus-based decision making, timely adoption of measures, and the implementation of obligations to meet these challenges.” Yet in the same meeting, in response to the deliberations of the Parties’ Committee on Environmental Protection they “expressed their disappointment at actions taken at this CEP meeting by one Party that challenged both the spirit and practice of decision-making by consensus”.

Similar difficulties, covering a wide range of areas including compliance, climate change and marine protected areas, have been a fast-escalating feature of the meetings of the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, responsible for the conservation of marine systems in the Southern Ocean.

In part, difficulties have been magnified by insistence on complete scientific evidence, an insistence that undermines understanding of the fact that reliable knowledge is generated by accepting the best-available evidence and that in the face of uncertainty, precaution is effective.

Solutions ahead

Rising variance in any system is a useful indicator of imminent change. Such growing variation is true of the Antarctic Treaty System after 60 years of relative stability and consensus.

Yet what form that imminent change will take is not settled.

One proposal is being expressed through increasingly declarative rhetoric – that conflict is already underway, that it will necessarily escalate and that it should be embraced, with appropriately responsive policy developed. In this bleak future, the worst forecasts for the region’s ecosystems and icesheets play out, adding to international insecurity and compromising sustainability successes.

However, an alternative, more deliberative future is also possible – one that recognises the need for political dexterity, innovation and appreciation for variation in approaches and the limits of knowledge. Such a future is closer to the aspirations of COP26 and to those of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Disruption will not displace the successes of the Antarctic Treaty in this second scenario. But for it to succeed, the Antarctic Treaty System should throw off its isolation from international decision-making too. The Antarctic has never been divorced from the rest of the Earth System – nor should be decision-making about it.

For further insights and analysis from the World Economic Forum, explore the transformation map on Antarctica curated by Monash University.

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