Ships illuminated at night as they transfer a catch of krill from a fishing vessel to a reefer. Photo by Andrew McConnell/Greenpeace/Panos


The Antarctic paradox

The most protected place on Earth has become one of the most threatened – and threatening. Can its problems be solved?

by Alejandra Mancilla & Peder Roberts + BIO

Ships illuminated at night as they transfer a catch of krill from a fishing vessel to a reefer. Photo by Andrew McConnell/Greenpeace/Panos

For more than 2,000 years, Antarctica existed only as a landscape of the imagination. If there was an Arctic continent, Aristotle reasoned in his treatise Meteorology, there ought to be an antipode, an ‘ant-Arctic’. For centuries, scientists, explorers and cartographers speculated about this antipodean Terra nondum cognita, a southern land not-yet known. But it wasn’t until 1820 that the continent was supposedly ‘found’ by three separate groups: a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, a British expedition led by Edward Bransfield, and a fishing fleet that included the American seal-hunter Nathaniel Palmer, who sighted the snow-covered mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula from his small sloop.

The land that emerged was profoundly inhospitable and remote, explaining why even neighbouring communities who may have known of the region long before Palmer – such as Māori and other seafaring Polynesian peoples – did not settle there. Since Palmer’s sighting, the last continent to enter human history has passed through many phases: from a remote hunting ground for sealers and whalers who nearly drove some species to extinction, to a ‘frozen hell’ for successive waves of explorers eager to discover and conquer it, to the largest open-air science laboratory in the world, and to arguably the most protected environment on Earth, thanks to stringent international regulations. But, in our age, Antarctica has entered a new phase: it has become a paradox.

This paradox appears as Antarctica turns into one of the most threatened places on Earth. As warming events become longer and more frequent, ice-free surfaces (which cover only 0.4 per cent of the continent) are expected to dramatically increase. Though the disappearance of ice would cause some native plants to bloom, it would also lead to the spread of non-native species and the decline and possible extinction of native animals, such as the emperor and chinstrap penguins. Changes to the Antarctic also pose an existential threat to millions of humans living further north: if the West Antarctica Ice Sheet were to collapse, the global sea-level is estimated to rise between 3.3 and 6 metres – catastrophic for the millions of inhabitants living on low-lying coastal regions or islands.

Most threatened but also most protected, Antarctica is safeguarded by one of the most rigorous environmental protection regimes in the world. And yet, no restrictions on actions in Antarctica – whether on tourist numbers, the introduction of dogs and other animals, the dumping of waste, or mining operations – can prevent the changes wrought by anthropogenic climate change. This highlights a paradox in environmental governance that becomes prominent in our age: it is not enough to protect a place by protecting that place only. What we call the ‘paradox of protection’ happens when the means of protection don’t match the ecosystem dynamics. Such is the case in Antarctica.

How did we end up in this puzzle? Why do so many countries act as if protecting Antarctica requires protections only within the continent? And what might the predicament of this continent tell us about environmental governance in the age of global heating?

Antarctica is often described as the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent on Earth, but its purported exceptionalism is not limited to geography and climate. It is also a political exception, based on a belief that the values and structures that underpin its governance are unique. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in December 1959, is considered the founding document of this one-of-a-kind international arrangement. The 12 countries that initially signed came with diverse intentions: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom had claimed different slices of the continent during the first half of the 20th century; the United States and the Soviet Union rejected the validity of any existing territorial claims while reserving the right to make their own claims in the future; and Belgium, South Africa and Japan, with the other nine states, had taken part in the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an 18-month scientific project that ran in the continent (and elsewhere) from 1957-58.

Signed at a time of Cold War tensions, the Treaty reflected the political zeitgeist as much as it bucked it, and it set the stage for a specific understanding of Antarctica based on three pillars: the maintenance of peace (achieved through non-militarisation and non-nuclearisation), the agreement to ‘freeze’ (though not relinquish) territorial claims, and the emphasis on scientific collaboration as an important activity to be carried out in the continent.

For some, this last pillar shows how significant the IGY was – not only for establishing Antarctica as essential to understanding global environmental processes, but also to an understanding of the continent as a vast laboratory where science became the privileged activity. Research conducted under the IGY banner could be carried out anywhere in Antarctica with no legal consequences for the sovereignty claims of any state, decoupling science from sovereignty in a strict legal sense. This made it clear that Antarctica was a place for research rather than a property to be claimed. Moreover, while the Treaty remained open for any state to join, becoming ‘consultative’ parties with decision-making rights required ‘conducting substantial research activity there, such as the establishment of a scientific station or the despatch of a scientific expedition’. Today, out of the 54 signatory countries, 29 have this status, while the remaining 25 ‘non-consultative’ countries have a voice, but no vote.

Though peace, suspended territorial claims and science featured prominently in the 14 articles of the Treaty, the preservation and conservation of living resources was mentioned only in passing, and the Antarctic environment as such was not mentioned even once. Mining and hydrocarbon extraction were not mentioned either, largely because the significant bother of negotiating how to share mineral resources outweighed the minimal possibility of profitable extraction. When interest in Antarctic oil and (to a lesser extent) minerals picked up steam in the 1970s and early ’80s, the consultative parties began negotiating how to govern such activities. This drew the ire of environmental groups and states excluded from the negotiations, which regarded these as another articulation of structural inequality in the global economic system.

Antarctica ought to be valued for its own sake, independent of any instrumental use for humans

The Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad regarded the Treaty as being part of the same fabric as other colonial regimes. Why should investing in science give a state privileged rights over natural resources, particularly when the concept of ‘the common heritage of mankind’ had been developed to cover the resources of the deep oceans beyond territorial boundaries? This objection was less about environmental protection and more about equity. Greenpeace, on the other hand, campaigned for the designation of Antarctica as a World Park, arguing that the real need was to categorically ban all mineral extraction. Tensions ran high at points amid demands for the Treaty – which appeared to some as a club with closed membership – to be opened up. Nevertheless, in 1988 the consultative parties finalised the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA), and all signs indicated that it would soon be ratified.

To the surprise of almost everyone, the Convention unexpectedly fell apart and, instead, the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty was signed by all consultative parties (and 21 other countries) in 1991. How did this radical change happen? At the time, many pointed to the Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, whose personal interest in the Antarctic environment may have been strengthened by domestic political considerations. But there were other considerations, too. Images of oil-covered seabirds from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska were fresh in people’s minds, as was the wreckage of the oil tanker Bahía Paraíso near the US Palmer Station in Antarctica. Greenpeace activists climbed onto the hull of the sinking ship and held up a flag: ‘ANTARCTIC TIME BOMB. THE FUTURE ON THE ROCKS’. As Adrian Howkins suggests in his environmental history of the polar regions, these disasters helped establish mineral extraction as fundamentally incompatible with the protection of Antarctica.

In the 1991 Protocol, parties committed themselves to a ban on mining and to the comprehensive protection of ‘the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems’, an expression that appears 14 times in the 18-page document. The Protocol quickly became regarded as an emblematic example of states coming together in a spirit of cooperation to achieve otherwise unthinkable results. First and foremost, Antarctica would be kept as a remote laboratory for scientists. Non-native species were banned from the continent – meaning that dogs were removed (humans, meanwhile, were conveniently excepted). Second, the parties acknowledged that Antarctica had intrinsic value: it ought to be valued for its own sake, independent of any instrumental use for humans. Finally, there was a recognition that what happened in Antarctica influenced atmospheric and oceanic systems, and therefore preventing major changes in the continent was in the interest of humanity at large. As the legal scholar Alan Hemmings claims, after the Protocol was signed, environmental protection joined the other three pillars of Antarctic governance.

This is when the Antarctic paradox begins to emerge. The 1991 Protocol was in some ways in tune with its times, signed one year before the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Yet it didn’t only create solutions: it created new problems, too. These issues resulted from a focus on proximate human actions (such as the introduction of dogs) to the exclusion of distant but far more ominous actions, particularly the emission of greenhouse gases outside the continent. Effectively protecting the Antarctic environment was impossible if actions were regulated only within the Antarctic Treaty area: 60 degrees south and below. This became obvious to participants in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Protocol. As the head of the Dutch delegation, Peter Verbeek, stated:

Damaging influences to the Antarctic environment … arise from outside Antarctica. The impact of human activities in Antarctica itself so far, fortunately, has been limited. The most important contribution to the objective of protecting the Antarctic environment, also therefore, should come from other fora than this one.

In the enthusiasm to construct a document as different as possible to CRAMRA, this crucial point was, if not completely overlooked, then certainly not regarded as fatal.

But it was.

Verbeek’s comment is an early, faint indication of the paradox of protection that we now see in high contrast due to anthropogenic climate change. The paradox is the result of what international relations scholars call a ‘problem of fit’ between the way an institution is designed and the ends it is supposed to achieve. Fit is defined as the degree of congruity ‘between properties of the relevant ecosystems and attributes of the institutions created to guide human interactions with these biophysical systems’. Two related causes of misfit between the ecosystem dynamics of Antarctica and its governance system are evident: first, the area over which the Treaty and Protocol have jurisdiction is too small to achieve the desired results; and second, factors external to them affect both their functioning and the functioning of the ecosystem that they are supposed to protect.

The Protocol has jurisdiction over all land and ice below 60 degrees south. But there is nothing natural about this line, and the task of defining a rigid, stable boundary is arguably impossible. Climatic changes are not limited by this line, so why should protections be constrained by the boundary? There are no coal-fired power stations in Antarctica and the footprint of its human visitors is minuscule compared with the carbon emissions produced further north. For many countries who have signed the Treaty and Protocol, ‘environmental’ actions involve building carbon-neutral research stations and using carbon-neutral research vehicles. But this will not save the continent. Heating in Antarctica is produced by greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere elsewhere in the world – action needs to be taken not in the Antarctic, but everywhere else.

So, if the problem of protecting Antarctica from environmental change is global in nature, should it not also be a global responsibility? At first, the fate of the Antarctic was decided only by the 12 countries who signed the Treaty; today, that number has risen to 29. Their level of scientific activity in Antarctica, combined with their experience in Antarctic operations, is what gives them privileged authority to decide Antarctica’s future. But this is problematic. In fact, these consultative parties might be worse than other states when it comes to executing their duties regarding the Antarctic environment. Of the 10 largest emitters in the world, seven (China, the US, India, Russia, Brazil, Japan and Germany) are signatories to the Protocol, while the 29 consultative parties together represent 73 per cent of total CO2 emissions and 64 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

The question then is how to solve the Antarctic paradox? Can we conceive of some mechanism that governs actions far to the north of continent? Does the ‘frozen hell’ have a right to be shielded from environmental change – a ‘right to be cold’? Can the group of states that decides Antarctica’s fate really protect it, or should others take that role?

The motivation for protecting Antarctica is not a fondness for sublime landscapes

Elsewhere in the world, other threatened areas have human defenders. The 39 members of the Alliance of Small Island States, a group of low-lying coastal and island nations affected by sea-level rise, systematically raise their voices at climate summits against the worst polluters because they know there is no other way to protect their interests. Likewise, when the representatives of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference filed a lawsuit against the US government in 2005 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, they argued that, by failing to control its greenhouse gas emissions, the US was damaging the Arctic and therefore the culture and hunting-based economy of the Inuit, which constituted a violation of their human rights. As the Inuit leader Sheila Watt-Cloutier said, her people have a ‘right to be cold’. A warming climate would erode the foundations of Inuit lifeways.

Does Antarctica have a right to be cold? Legal precedents are emerging for regarding rivers, natural areas and even nature as a whole as having legal standing – precedents are based on the intrinsic values of these entities. If the ice of Antarctica was considered in the same way, measures to ensure its stability could attain a greater degree of urgency. The text of the Protocol itself might provide a basis for such action: it leaves open for interpretation exactly where Antarctica’s value is located (in who or what), independent of its use for humans. But it can be philosophically problematic, or at least legally complicated, to regard ice shelves and ice sheets as having a right to exist undisturbed from human threats. Less controversially, an argument could be made for native Antarctic animals to be given such standing, insofar as they can experience the consequences of such threats directly. Depending on how ‘Antarctica’ and its value is interpreted, the Protocol could provide a basis for granting rights to nonhuman animals to preserve their habitat. This would be in line with a sentient ethics that assigns moral consideration to all beings who are able to feel pain and pleasure.

Fulfilling Antarctica’s ‘right to be cold’ can also be justified in instrumental terms. For millions of humans, the motivation for protecting Antarctica is not a fondness for sublime landscapes. Rather, Antarctica presents an existential threat to citizens of states that are neither parties to the Antarctic Treaty nor possessed of the political or economic resources to prevent or adapt to climate change.

Some could object that we are stretching the definition of ‘protection’ too far. Ought, after all, implies can and, when it comes to climate change, states could simply point out that, as much as they would like to stop ice shelves from collapsing and penguins from starving, it is not in their power to do so. The argument is that humans cannot preserve at will the conditions of the late Holocene, and so ‘protection’ must be understood differently. Instead of struggling to keep things as they are, our efforts should be directed at navigating a dynamic world. In the context of Antarctica, this means accepting that a considerable part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet will probably melt, leading to radical changes in its geography and to the marine ecosystem surrounding it. But this line of reasoning is callously indifferent to many of Earth’s most vulnerable people. It also ignores the unknown risk of reaching certain tipping points after which human and nonhuman life on Earth may become affected in unpredictable ways.

Although the Protocol prohibits states from participating in certain activities that damage the Antarctic environment (such as bringing in dogs), it does not push states to refrain from changing Antarctic environments indirectly through greenhouse gas emissions. This disconnect must be addressed if there is to be meaningful protection. It seems ironic that many of the most active Antarctic researchers are sent to the continent by states whose actions most undermine the stability of their researchers’ very object of study.

There are good reasons to still think of Antarctica as a laboratory. Much remains to be learned about exactly how Antarctica is changing, from the distribution of nutrients that ground marine food chains, to the dynamics of melting ice sheets and ice shelves. Supporting such research contributes to understanding environmental change in Antarctica and its consequences for the rest of the world. Protecting the world, in a real sense, requires halting changes in Antarctica. However, the future of the continent rarely appears as a weighty consideration when those deciding its fate write their own climate policies. Today, states don’t seem to view their collective status as that of guardians of Antarctica. Instead, they’re satisfied with producing good science. This is insufficient. Knowing about Antarctica does not necessarily lead to a sense of greater responsibility for acting on that knowledge. Russia, Australia and the US, among others, remain both major players in Antarctic research (including climate research) and major carbon emitters. Moreover, the best research conducted by the best scientists with the best equipment cannot, on its own, drive political change. It is telling that the Committee for Environmental Protection, informed by the best scientific evidence, has a mere advisory role at the ongoing Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. It is up to the national delegates to follow their recommendations – or not.

While the Antarctic Treaty establishes the importance of science, it also nods to peace, which would certainly be undermined by the disappearance of low-lying island states, the radical reshaping of the world’s coastlines, and a surge in climate refugees (while the approximate number is hard to predict, estimates go from tens to hundreds of millions). The language of the Protocol, with its wide-ranging references to Antarctic ecosystems and their protection, makes clear that protecting the environment is important in addition to keeping the peace. It seems clear that the two concepts are intimately linked.

So, which way forward? What would it require to solve the Antarctic paradox? And how broadly ought that mission to be defined?

Antarctica needs its own representative, an agent speaking for the continent itself

One option would be to replace science – the primary currency for political power in Antarctica – with another criterion, such as environmental performance according to some independently defined index. This would mean giving the consultative parties with lowest emissions greater decision-making power, at the expense of the worst offenders. For example, Peru, Uruguay and Ecuador (those with the lowest CO2 emissions per capita) would have more power than Australia, the US and South Korea (those with the highest CO2 emissions per capita). Another option would be to give power to states directly affected by sea-level rise, independently of whether they are currently members of the Treaty or not. The latter would amount to a sort of ‘polluted participates’ principle (an inversion of the ‘polluter pays’ principle), whereby those who are affected by climatic changes they did not cause are given decision-making power to help minimise further anthropogenic climate change.

The problem is, of course, feasibility. Given the lack of an enforcement authority, it is hard to see why the parties would voluntarily cede their power to others. There would also be fierce resistance from the seven states that still claim sovereignty over Antarctic territory, who ground their claims on rights earned through discovery and effective occupation, rather than through the performance of scientific and environmental values. For some activists, this just shows that Antarctica needs its own representative, an agent speaking not for the states that collectively administer the continent, but for the continent itself. Environmental philosophy increasingly grapples with the question of how to give the nonhuman world political representation, and there are already legal precedents around the world pointing in this direction. However, states are still the paradigmatic power-wielding agents in the international arena, and it would be up to them to give up this power to a new Antarctic guardian or guardians. The historic reluctance of states to recognise any international body or treaty that threatens their narrowly defined self-interest makes such a solution seem unlikely.

If we allow ourselves to think beyond the limits of what’s currently feasible, we might see that the tools to protect Antarctica are already at our disposal. Recall that one of the Protocol’s primary goals is the ‘comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems’. An ambitious reading of this would urge those who have so far signed the Protocol to act globally to protect Antarctica. And if these states were bound to change their behaviour not just 60 degrees south and below but also at home, the Protocol could become the most ambitious legal instrument of environmental protection ever agreed upon at the international level.

For that to be possible, Antarctica must be recognised not only as an icy preserve of unspoiled wilderness, but also as a looming threat – a force of destruction unleashed through global heating. And it must be seen not only as the most protected place on Earth, but also as the place where the paradox of protection shines in all its glory: in this vast laboratory, our default assumptions about what good environmental governance requires are put to the test – and fail. Through melting, shifting ice, we see the profound contradictions of protecting the Antarctic, but also the possibility of a new phase for Earth’s former Terra nondum cognita.

This essay is inspired by Alejandra Mancilla’s project Dynamic Territory, funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 948964), and by Peder Roberts’s project Greening the Poles, funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 716211).