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Is the Antarctic Treaty worth celebrating?

June 23, 2021 is the 60th anniversary of the entry into force of the Antarctic Treaty. Although 54 countries currently within the scope of the treaty are planning celebrations, due to the escalating climate crisis, the western Antarctic ice shield is at risk of collapse, while the southern ocean is rapidly warming.

Although the Antarctic Treaty only stipulates what happens south of 60 degrees latitude, all its 54 member states voted to approve the Paris Climate Agreement, which promises all signatories to limit global warming to “far below 2 degrees.”

Of course, no country is currently on the track to reduce emissions, and France is hosting an anniversary celebration online, and the French oil company Total is busy building the EACOP crude oil pipeline that runs through the center of Africa. There is little evidence of a commitment to reduce carbon dioxide.


Increasing emissions and their impact on local ecosystems are the main reason why this anniversary is not worth celebrating — for Antarctica — for coastal communities around the world, when their ice shields melt Flooded.

Although some low-lying countries in the Pacific are part of the Antarctic governance system—such as Malaysia and Papua New Guinea—because they don’t have the money to develop “substantial science,” they are not granted full voting rights. In fact, out of the 54 countries that make up the treaty, only 29 can vote—the rest are “non-negotiating parties”.

So far, the treaty system has mainly operated as an elite club with limited public transparency. Over the years, it has been unable to make important decisions, partly because of its internal democratic operation, which uses a system based on consensus building. Despite these shortcomings, it is usually a treaty proposed as a successful example of global cooperation. However, environmental management only came into effect after the 1998 Madrid Protocol.

In fact, it is one of the last policy spaces that has largely escaped the scrutiny of environmental justice activists. But just because its ecosystem is remote does not mean that we shouldn’t pay attention.

When I visited the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica for the first time in 2012-on the German polar research icebreaker “Polarstern”-the ecological crisis was obvious, but the social justice associated with Antarctica was not entirely obvious to me.

When I do think about social justice, I mainly think of the physical connections in Antarctica, such as the thermohaline ocean circulation system that connects the waters of the Southern Ocean with all other oceans except the Arctic. Or whales that migrate to the southern ocean during the summer in Antarctica to prey on the abundant krill, this tiny crustacean is the basis of the Antarctic food web, and its population is predicted to decrease by 30% by the end of the year. The century is the result of global warming.

Social justice

However, during my eight recent visits to the Antarctic, the injustices in society have become more obvious and harder to ignore when sailing on ships of science, expedition, government, and environmental sports.

One of the most obvious and pressing social justice issues can be found in the polar expedition “cruise ship” industry. On these ships, crews from the Philippines work 12 to 14 hours a day in shifts, usually signed short-term contracts of 6 to 12 months. However, crew members from EU countries only need to work for 3-4 months to take vacation.

The industry itself caters to high-end tourists who come to explore one of the most remote areas in the world. On a 100-passenger 5-star cruise ship, a 10-day voyage to Antarctica could easily cost more than 10,000 Euros.The average travel trip, including flights, emits 5.5 tons of carbon dioxide, which is over 4 degrees FahrenheitFilipino nationalls Will be discharged within one year.

With this in mind, since the tourism industry reached 50,000 visitors in 2018/19, what fees did the industry pay to the Antarctic Treaty system to fund ecosystem monitoring and management? Absolutely not.

So far, Antarctic tourism is still completely self-regulating. The industry provides its own guidelines to reduce interference with wildlife or local plants, but obviously does not intend to limit the development of the industry that continues to commission more and more professional “ice-class” tourist boat services every year.

Wash green

One of the industry’s biggest green washing operations is the lie that Antarctica actually benefited from the visit. The revolving operation is like this, and the arriving tourists become advocates and ambassadors of environmental protection. However, three months after visiting Antarctica, the visitor’s behavior did not change significantly. The reality is that tourists are more likely to encourage their friends to visit Antarctica before it melts. This impulse to spend is best described as the “last” trip.

Not only does the tourism industry contain hidden social justice issues, but also fisheries. Since 2017, the Polar Regulations of the International Maritime Organization have forced most ships to comply with stricter safety measures when operating in polar waters. However, small vessels such as yachts and fishing vessels are generally not subject to the new regulations.

Statistics show that in the past 30 years, most of the casualties in Southern Ocean shipping accidents were fishermen. The Antarctic Treaty countries regulate regional fisheries, so it is easy to require fishing vessels to comply with stricter rules to obtain licenses. However, the lives of fishermen do not seem to have much meaning in any ocean.

The greater controversy within Antarctic ocean governance is the issue of fishing itself. Toothfish and krill are the only commercial species in the Southern Ocean, and there is still an urgent need to establish more marine protected areas.

In the debate around space and time access and fishing restrictions, the question of why anyone is allowed to fish in this ecosystem has never been resolved, although fishing from the Southern Ocean basically does not contribute to global food security.


Even some companies in the industry admit that the toothfish is fished specifically for high-end restaurants and is sold at the wholesale market for around 50 Euros per kilogram.

Krill is almost never eaten directly by anyone. It is mainly used in fish feed for aquaculture to make salmon beautiful in color. It is also used in Omega 3 health products for humans and pets, which led a commentator to ask the question whether we “barked” to introduce dogs into the Southern Ocean food chain.

The IPCC tells us that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly and far-reachingly. Closing fisheries that do nothing for food security will be one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions.

In fact, the Norwegian krill fishing company Aker Biomarine is the first to announce that it will soon operate the first Antarctic fishing vessel powered by a more ecological ammonia fuel-while conveniently forgetting to mention that Aker BP is actually producing oil with BP. By the way, Aker Solutions also participated in the construction of the Guantanamo prison complex.

China and Russia did not stop fishing in the area, but actively blocked designated marine protected areas. If marine protected areas are established, fishing in particularly sensitive areas will be restricted.


During the last ocean management conference, fisheries management fell into a historic deadlock. The dispute caused by a Russian illegal fishing boat photographed by a New Zealand plane led to the suspension of the proceedings. As any decision within the Antarctic Treaty system requires consensus, Russia simply refuses to sanction its own ships for illegal fishing, but instead accuses New Zealand of forging GPS data in photos, shocking and desperate for NGO observers and representatives of conservation organizations .

Is there really nothing to celebrate in Antarctic governance?

Of course, many important sciences have been completed, and Antarctica is still demilitarized. The treaty successfully prevented the Cold War from extending to the southern continent, which is a great achievement of international cooperation. But now, with the increase in technical “knowledge” on how to extract them from such a desolate place, people’s interest in mainland resources has become more and more obvious. Although the mining ban is indefinite, the Environmental Protocol may be revised in 2048.

In particular, China is often criticized for its “use” in its Antarctic and maritime policies, and is vilified by Western observers as the strongest supporter of mining in Antarctica. But so far, China has not operated more stations than any other country. In fact, Australia’s Antarctic Department is currently proposing the most environmentally destructive project: the construction of a huge concrete airport at Davis Station, which will Increase the footprint of mankind on the African continent by 40%.

The project did not receive much support from Australian scientists. Hugh Broughton Architects in London declined to comment, and the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy has become the most powerful organization to promote the project.


As the earth is entering an era of environmental collapse, due to high emissions, excessive consumption, and Australia’s Scott Morrison’s explicit refusal to implement effective climate policies, there is no space for any new high-emission infrastructure in the ecosystem as unique as Antarctica. And fragile—especially not for strategic reasons.

For many years, the question of how to improve governance and speed up decision-making has plagued participants and observers. Although the solution is not yet clear, letting the Antarctic countries find a solution on their own has clearly not worked in the past few decades. It’s time for the public to transcend the smokescreen of empty rhetoric and praise for the Antarctic Treaty system, and begin to hold these voting nations accountable: for the protection of Antarctica and everyone connected to and dependent on it — humans and non-humans —.

This author

Carola Rackete is an ecologist and environmental justice activist. He currently serves as an Antarctic activist for the Bob Brown Foundation (Australia) and is involved in a peatland restoration project with Snowchange in Finland. She tweeted @CaroRackete.

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