Antarctica is often seen as the last frontier for civilization and a growing reminder of the multiple impacts of climate change. But it could also serve to merge the interests of non-global powers—including the countries of Latin America—to maintain and strengthen the status quo of peaceful scientific exploration.
Sixty years ago this past month the U.S. played a pivotal role in sponsoring a major international treaty at a time of political brinkmanship. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) banned all military and commercial activity on the continent, marking a path for peaceful scientific expeditions. However, what has become a silently successful example of multilateralism may face future challenges as geopolitical tensions rise along with global temperatures.
To avoid serious consequences concerning climate change and political conflicts in the future, it is time to consider modernizing and strengthening the ATS. Chile, along with other Latin American nations, are well positioned to lead the way.
At the conclusion of the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Poland, it was announced that Chile will host the next gathering of environmental delegates at COP25. Likely to take place in January 2020, Chileans will play an important role during a critical juncture for climate negotiations. (The Paris Agreement is expected to enter into force during the conference).
COP25 will offer Chile the opportunity to strengthen global consensus on climate change by displaying its growing renewable energy portfolio, recent large-scale conservation efforts , its progressive environmental policies—such as a tax on carbon emissions—and its long-term vision of how to best combat climate change.
While hosting COP25 will put the spotlight on Chilean efforts within a global context, the U.S. and Brazil could continue to cause disruptions. The Trump administration has ignored the credible threats of climate change, instead doubling down on policies that weaken environmental regulations. President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to follow a similar path by either weakening or undoing Brazilian environmental protections during his tenure, which, given Brazil’s size and high levels of biodiversity, could hurt multilateral efforts to address climate change more
Beyond threatening to pull out of the Paris Agreement, Bolsonaro passed up the opportunity to host COP25, withdrawing Brazil from a previous commitment and leaving the leadership gap open for Chile and Costa Rica to fill.
Updating the ATS
While the ATS originally included only twelve countries, today more than fifty nations have signed on with either consultative or non-consultative status. Of these, ten countries in Latin America are party to the treaty; Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay all hold consultative status. Given the proximity of several countries in Latin America, the region has a tremendous opportunity to highlight the effects of climate change in the Antarctic and with it, more than half a century of peaceful scientific exploration.
This is the case for Argentina and Chile in particular, which despite holding overlapping claims with each other and the United Kingdom, continue to host and support scientists from around the world. Challenges to the status quo of scientific cooperation in the Antarctic may become more prominent over the course of the next decade—not only due to the accelerating rate of change that is underway, but given the existing geopolitical interests to one day dominate the continent.
Choosing to initiate a new global dialogue that addresses Antarctica’s future governance sooner rather than later has its risks. With the international treaty system set to expire in 2048, however, beginning these efforts now to bolster the continent’s governance will represent a critical endeavor and one in which Latin American nations can influence the debate. Chile and Argentina for example, could work together to minimize how major powers might strategize to influence Antarctica militarily and economically, expanding international as well as regional cooperation on conservation and climate science.
Pushing this narrative is crucial now more than ever, as scientists have recently witnessed some alarming developments. A study in Nature last summer found that Antarctic ice melt is occurring nearly three times faster than a decade ago. Since 1992, approximately 3 trillion tons of ice has melted. Forty percent of that loss can be attributed to the past five years alone.
The lack of involvement by the U.S. to address its role as a major contributor of greenhouse gases, illustrated by its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017 and President Trump’s recent denial of the Fourth National Climate Assessment report findings, all indicate that U.S. inaction on climate policy will likely continue. Multilateral pressure from developing nations vulnerable to climate change, including much of Latin America and the Caribbean, will become increasingly important in maintaining commitments from large economies to reduce their emissions—while also highlighting the adverse impacts of a warming planet.
While the U.S. is currently lacking in both ambition and influence in the polar regions, other countries continue to expand their presence, including Russia and China. This past November, China, Norway and Russia blocked a proposal that would have created the world’s largest marine protected area in the Weddell Sea. China continues to ramp up its investment and presence on Antarctica since joining the treaty system in 1983.
By 2022, the Chinese government will have built its fifth research station , and while scientific cooperation has been the basis for its expanded interest in the continent, it is likely that access to natural resources will play a greater role in the future. Concerns over a growing tourism industry and the exploitation of fisheries are already mounting.
China continues to remain without an official Antarctic policy, instead relying on an ambiguous position of “understand, protect, and use.” It therefore begs to question given previous opposition to marine conservation and other environmental efforts, if the growing presence and investment by China in the Antarctic will eventually test the effectiveness of the continent’s governance and treaty system.
Chile and Argentina could address such concerns regarding China and other actors, by further strengthening international consensus to counter the exploitation or extraction of resources in the future, aiming to address current enforcement and compliance of the protocols more aggressively.
Despite China and Russia leading the race for mobility in the Arctic with larger fleets of icebreaking vessels, the U.S. has the greatest capacity to reach Antarctica by air, for now. The U.S. may need some persuasion to recapture its leadership role in the Antarctic and Latin America could leverage its proximity by playing a critical role for climate diplomacy. By leveraging their geographic proximity, Chile and Argentina could increase access to the interior
of the continent for scientists. Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia, Argentina represent the initial staging for many international expeditions.
Enhancing logistical outreach through existing U.S. relations with these two countries could help provide the impetus for scientists to gather data in more difficult-to-reach areas of the continent, which is approximately the size of Mexico and the United States combined. Chilean and Argentine efforts to address the high costs and logistical challenges of research expeditions, could be a good way to partner and involve U.S. expertise and technology.
Chilean and Argentine universities and research institutions could also generate stronger networks for the study of Antarctic issues and climate science more generally throughout the region. According to Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute: “The more interest in accessing the continent from South America, the more important these countries become.” Whether or not the region could become host to a new series of international summits with the aim of strengthening the existing framework remains to be seen. However, calls to update and modernize the treaty system continue to be made, with little if any progress.
What we stand to lose
We need only look to past inaction on climate change to understand the size and scope of the pending risks. The 1988 congressional testimony of NASA scientist James Hansen represented a milestone for the field. However, the evidence he provided only served as a prelude to worsening trends: more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a continued reliance on fossil fuels.
Thirty years later, we are at a crossroads where the international community will need to determine how the next three decades will play out. Governments should consider the benefits of climate diplomacy and multilateralism around the Antarctic. It is here that Latin American nations, Chile and Argentina specifically, have an opportunity to lead a meaningful dialogue.
Anders Beal is a program assistant at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin American Program in Washington, D.C. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.