Antarctic loss and damage

November 11th marked the beginning of the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—this year held in Warsaw. Six major components generally comprise the UNFCCC agenda, but two main pillars get the most attention: mitigation and adaptation. The focus on mitigation means nations—developed and developing (naturally there is some contention between rich and poor nations here)—reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to curb the intensity of climate change. As part of the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to target a reduction in GHG emissions sufficient to keep global temperature increases within 2°C. An ambitious goal, perhaps overly so, to say the least. Adaptation, on the other hand, speaks to the idea that some degree of climate change is inevitable at this point and that nations need to make plans to deal with long-term impacts like sea level rise on behalf of vulnerable people and areas.

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw--photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw–photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

Subsumed by the adaptation pillar, the Warsaw Conference has largely centered on the notion of “loss and damage.” In essence, loss and damage related to climate change means losses of life, territory, economic prosperity, climatic stability and predictability, biodiversity etc., and damages related to weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and onset of sea level rise. Some analysts have suggested that loss and damage deserves to be considered a third pillar all its own next to mitigation and adaptation.

In pragmatic terms, discussion of loss and damage ultimately becomes a discussion of culpability, liability, responsibility, and compensation. Sticky territory to be sure. Money politics surrounding loss and damage is contentious at best. No one wants to pay more than their fair share, but few agree on how to determine what shares are “fair.” In large part, the divergence is one between the relative importance of cumulative v. annual GHG emissions, and which should receive more emphasis in establishing financial obligations—basically the same question that stopped the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. In either case the debate revolves around two major players—the United States (the largest cumulative GHG emitter by far) and China (now the largest annual GHG emitter). Obviously other countries (Europe and the other BRIC nations) have their hands in this issue as well, but the US and China are the big two.

So loss and damage—clearly a salient issue. Climate change means unprecedented losses and damages. When it comes to nations, determining relative interests are somewhat intuitive. Everyone has, albeit varying, national interests in addressing climate change for domestic reasons, and no one wants to pay more than their fair share—no one likes the idea of other countries freeloading on their mitigation efforts. But, clearly, climate change isn’t just a domestic issue. Climate change entails a slew of international losses and damages involving global commons—the oceans and Antarctica, for example—which don’t have straightforward national borders to delineate interest groups and stakeholders. Indeed, Antarctica has plenty to lose and damage to incur, but lacks the domestic interest element, strictly speaking. The Antarctic meltdown has, for the most part, only been discussed indirectly in terms of sea level rise.

Antarctic territory map--photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

But Antarctica has more going on than just melting glaciers, break-away icebergs, and contributions to sea level rise. I’m thinking, for instance, about changes in biodiversity we can expect to see as ecological conditions shift on and around the continent and Southern Ocean. Between rising atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, and a warming Southern Ocean, the ~16,000 species known to inhabit Antarctic itself or the waters surrounding it have some notable challenges ahead—but no national  interest, strictly speaking, to represent them at the UNFCCC. In particular, let’s consider some charismatic mega-fauna like the endangered Southern Elephant Seal and the variety of endangered whales that live on and near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Sealing and whaling (especially whaling) have been—and still are, sadly—problems for these populations, and climate change coupled with habitat loss and changes in ocean temperatures and acidity will only increase their stressors. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, then Southern Elephant Seals lose breeding grounds, and whales and seals alike will need to adapt to changing oceanic conditions. So what’s to be done on their behalf? While Antarctic interests are represented at the UNFCCC by non-governmental organization (NGO) observers, Antarctica doesn’t exactly have its own seat at the table.

Southern Elephant Seal--photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Luckily, Antarctica will benefit from mitigation efforts regardless of whether it’s afforded explicit attention or not—but ethically speaking, because improvements to Antarctica’s lot are, in a mitigative sense, coincidental or happenstantial, this may be unsatisfying. And few—perhaps with the exception of some researchers and activists—worry about Antarctic adaptation. So, again, what’s to be done to hedge against Antarctic loss and damage?

To this point, aside from UNFCCC action, there was a recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—another fantastic acronym for an appropriately instrumentalist name—to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary around Antarctica, totaling somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 million square kilometers.

Penguins in the Ross Sea--photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Penguins in the Ross Sea–photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Unfortunately, Russian and Ukranian representatives questioned the authority of the CCAMLR to declare such a sanctuary, and, in turn, blocked its establishment, undermining what political good will may have existed in this context. Disappointing, to be sure, but in a sense this objection is just a business-as-usual exercise of power given the structure of the Antarctic Treaty System, which—we can only assume is to avoid a sort of Aristotelian tyranny of the majority—demands that international decisions pertaining to Antarctica be made unanimously. So we probably won’t see the creation of an Antarctic Marine Reserve any time soon. While the sanctuary may not have been proposed with specific regard to climate change, it would have been progress regarding Antarctic loss and damage nonetheless. But so much for that.

Humpback whale breach--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Humpback whale breach–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Sadly, the failed marine reserve also means a failed way to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean. Historically, whaling near Antarctica has been atrocious. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union (among others) was responsible for the disappearance of more than 180,000 whales. 180 thousand. But as of ~27 years ago commercial whaling was declared illegal by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the ban put a stop to all whaling. Yes—even in this day and age—there are still whalers out there. What’s even more surprising is that it’s technically  legal. Japan was granted a moratorium from the prohibition in order to do scientific research that involves whaling. Whaling for science! Makes sense, right? Earth First! and Greenpeace eco-activists aren’t the only ones who find this repugnant. Toward protecting against Antarctic biodiversity loss, in 2010 Australia took Japan to court at the Hague—the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands—in order to challenge the validity of Japan’s “scientific research,” which, by Japan’s argument, requires killing whales. Japan has taken more than 10,000 whales from the Southern Ocean since 1988.

Japanese whaling ship--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Japanese whaling ship–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

The Hague should pass down its judgment within the next few months, so at that point we’ll see what justice holds for whaling. Perhaps on the pessimistic side of legal analysis, by Dr. Rowan Hooper’s reading, the Australian case may be emotionally compelling, but Japan may have a stronger legal argument to uphold their exception from the IWC’s prohibition.

Suffice to say, between climate change, habitat loss, warming water, ocean acidification, and whaling—there are plenty reasons to be concerned about Antarctic loss and damage. The question, then, is what should and what will be done about it moving forward. Let’s get it together humans.

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Antarctica is melting! An iceberg the size of Chicago recently broke off of the Pine Island Glacier because of an enormous and growing crack in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the Chicago-sized glacier is only the latest event in a recent trend of Antarctica’s glaciers melting.

Why this is happening is still something of a mystery—but a warming Southern Ocean eating at the ice from below and higher air temperatures from climate change melting it from the top-down are the main suspects. Whatever the cause, the Antarctic is melting—and we might be responsible, even if only in part. So what does, and what should, the Antarctic meltdown mean to us?

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Should we see the Antarctic meltdown as yet another sign that the human footprint on Earth is out of control and must be stopped? On the contrary, if anthropogenic climate change is not at the root of Antarctica melting, it’s not so clear that we have a responsibility to intervene for its own sake—though intervention for humanity’s sake may be another story.

There are several implications of a melting Antarctica worth considering. Worthy concerns range from sea-level rise and the threat posed to human civilization, what Antarctica might mean to us as climate change intensifies, habitat and biodiversity loss, messy international politics over the governance of a global commons, the inherent value of wilderness, and the impacts of Antarctic melt on ocean ecology.

The issues raised above are too many and too complex to cover in a single post. So, this represents the inaugural installment of a six-part series I will be writing on the ethics, science, and policy questions surrounding the Antarctic meltdown.

The ethical elephant in the room is sea-level rise. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise somewhere between 16 and 23 feet. Coastal dwellers beware. Even if humans aren’t responsible for Antarctica’s recent trend of melting, outwardly we seem morally obliged to mitigate the Antarctic meltdown because of its disastrous consequences for humans living on coasts. But human interests aren’t necessarily the only concern. In any case—hold that thought. We’ll dive into the ethics of sea-level rise in a later piece.

Fresh water and climate change

What follows takes a look into what Antarctica might mean to us in context of freshwater scarcity—or rather, drought—-due to climate change. In a recent piece, “Our new hydroverlords,” I discussed some of the scary possibilities that could arise as a result of water scarcity due to climate change. With this fresh in my mind, I thought—what role does Antarctica play in this dialectic?

Consider: water is essential to life on Earth. While the marginal value of water is relatively small—a 20 oz. bottle of fresh water can cost less than a dollar—its total value is beyond measure—without water, life as we know it would come to an end. Disregarding the needs of the nonhuman world for the moment, we use water for drinking, agriculture, industry, recreation, etc. The list goes on.

Freshwater only makes up about 2.5% of the total water on Earth, and most of that—more than 99%—is trapped in the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets. Of that 99%, the Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 30 million cubic kilometers of ice—and it has been that way for the past 40 million years. But this pristine and ancient reservoir is draining into the ocean.

Technically, Antarctica is a desert. Among several other places contending for record low annual precipitation, Antarctica is one of the harshest, highest deserts on the planet. But ice has been building up for millennia, so while scarce precipitation falls there each year, the ice is at least a mile thick in most places. So, if we even come close to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s most severe drought prediction, we may start seeing the South Pole in a different light within the century.

Depending on how much desalination technology improves in the next 80 years or so, places with plentiful freshwater resources may get increasingly hard to come by. That’s not to suggest that governments or multinational companies should start shipping glacier fragments or piping melt water—or that this would be legal, feasible, cost efficient, or desirable—but as latitudes of livable precipitation press northward and southward, Antarctica may start looking more and more like prime real estate. With the human population climbing well beyond 7 billion and close to a billion people going without access to clean freshwater already, there are bound to be lots of hot, thirsty folks in the future.

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099 — CLICK TO ENLARGE

Seven nations—Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Argentina, France, New Zealand, and Norway—have claimed territory in Antarctica by right of discovery and occupation, but the Antarctic Treaty System has peacefully suspended any future territorial claims. So long as the treaty is in place, these claims should neither expand nor diminish—nor should Antarctica become an object of international discord.

In short, no one “owns” Antarctica so no one can “buy” resources or property there like we typically think when it comes to land. But land is land and humans are, at the end of the day, just animals that will adapt to climate change however we can if things elsewhere get inhospitable enough.

Resource scarcity exacerbated by a climbing population and climate change could mean a new interest in extraction from the Antarctic. If humans are struggling with drought and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting anyway, shouldn’t we attempt to harvest that freshwater resource rather than let it slip into the ocean?

Changes in the Antarctic ice could also be seen as an opportunity for fossil fuels exploration and send the Southern Ocean the way of the Arctic.

In the most radical scenario, even multinational emigration, settlement, and urban development is possible. If things get warm enough from catastrophic climate change and the land beneath the ice sheet starts poking through, should humans become Antarctica’s first permanent mammalian terrestrial inhabitants?  In spirit reminiscent of Westward Expansion, should we press forward—or rather, southward—into the wild?

Human presence in the Antarctic would represent a fundamental shift in Earth’s last wild ecosystem, as well as for geo-politics—and both are rife with ethical quandaries. If at some point our survival or the prevention and alleviation of human suffering depends upon Antarctic resources, then have we non-arbitrary justification for doing so? But barring abject, otherwise inescapable poverty, don’t we also have good reason to prefer to see the world’s last wilderness remain exactly that?

Human beings have been an exceptionally successful invasive species and could no doubt make life in Antarctica work, but the inherent value of preserving its natural condition may outweigh our disposition to view the nonhuman environment as a resource stock. Put a pin in that thought: we’ll consider the idea and value of wilderness again and in more depth in a later post.

So humans are resource hungry and need places to live—especially as the world population grows—but Antarctica isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. If it comes to that, it’ll be a long time off. If such a day does arrive, something of an international governance fiasco might ensue. Antarctica could become the world’s next radical political experiment.

But not to worry, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty currently prohibits development in Antarctica almost altogether (short of a few low-impact scientific research stations) in order to “preserve the intrinsic value of Antarctica.” In turn, some of these questions may be ethically rich but legally moot…for now.

However, a recent attempt to create a new Antarctic ocean sanctuary failed in an moment of international politicking—so perhaps we should take this as a sign that, like the climate, international norms of Antarctic governance are changing. Or is the failed sanctuary vote just business-as-usual? But hold that thought, yet again. We’ll get to that in one of the next installments of the Antarctic meltdown.