Antarctica’s Possible New World Order


COVID-19 has not only upended our individual lives. It disrupted the world order, challenging our assumptions about how things work and how they should work. Even with only a small number of cases in Antarctica, COVID will change how the frozen continent faces its future.

COVID has led to scrutiny of the functioning of global systems such as the World Health Organization; unprecedented global collaborations have resulted in extraordinarily rapid vaccine development; global trade and travel mobilities have been severely curtailed; state restrictions on human movement have been severe and controversial.

The pandemic has given us insight into a number of globally connected efforts. It provides an indicator of how other global stressors, such as climate change, might be playing. And that allows us to see Antarctica again.

Antarctica is in itself a global imaginary, where short-term and long-term horizons coexist, as well as international cooperation and sovereign interests. It is a place where early signs of change can be detected and is, therefore, a useful predictor of change elsewhere.

Five cities: Cape Town, South Africa; Christchurch, New Zealand; Hobart, Australia; Punta Arenas, Chile, and Ushuaia, Argentina are known as “the Gateway Cities” where Antarctic governance, logistics and science converge. But how they cope with COVID-19, recover economically and engage geopolitically in the years to come is likely to significantly shape the governance of Antarctica.

More pandemics, a growing climate emergency and an increasingly fragmented geopolitical context are paving the way for troubling scenarios.

In one scenario, gateway cities could become gatekeepers, operating in a world where problem-based alliances driven by narrowly defined national interests dominate geopolitics.

States could take longer than expected to recover from the pandemic, as their citizens are unwilling to support the costly scientific efforts underway. Global norms and international legal bodies may cease to be effective unless reformed or won the support of major powers. The existing tension between China and the United States could intensify, leading to military rather than scientific alliances.

Gateway cities, distracted by their own national security and geopolitical concerns, are unable to protect Antarctica. In this world, the Antarctic of 2035 could be plagued by illegal mining, states could portray Antarctic stations as sovereign outposts.

The Antarctic of 2050 could be dominated by elite tourism and elite science. Geoengineering to stabilize ice caps and iron seeding in the Southern Ocean may be underway by private actors. Protesters could start blocking visiting icebreakers as Antarctica is reduced to a loosely regulated “wild” park.

In an alternative scenario, gateway cities strive to protect common global interests at the expense of narrowly conceived national interests. Attention would be focused on Antarctica due to increased access.

In this scenario, Antarctica in 2035 faces extreme weather conditions induced by climate change and another pandemic. Science programs could continue to be disrupted, with Antarctica effectively ‘shut down’ until things return to ‘normal’.

Gateway cities could work with the private sector to support national Antarctic programs, with private actors increasing their influence over time.

In the Antarctic of 2050, in this scenario, space exploration has taken over from Antarctica as the place where states clash; the American, Chinese and Russian satellite stations at the South Pole are run as an international station, a hub for global communication. Some Antarctic spaces are effectively privatized.

Although extreme, these scenarios highlight the need to rethink the governance of Antarctica. Doing nothing is not an option. There are forces at play right now that could fundamentally undermine or change humans’ relationship with Antarctica.

Some thinking has begun, but not within formal Antarctic governance mechanisms. It taps into a growing global zeitgeist that argues that humans need to rebalance our relationship with nature. Indigenous peoples in Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere are successful in gaining legal personality for sacred rivers; the World Alliance for the Rights of Nature spearheaded the development of a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and continues to advocate for the rights of nature.

The latest initiative in this direction is the Antarctic Bill of Rights. The aim of the Declaration is “to establish a new ecocentric vision to guide people’s interaction with – and their responsibilities towards – Antarctica for centuries to come”. Despite the Cold War era and subsequent geopolitical tensions, Antarctica has remained a place of international cooperation and peace for the past 60 years.

But the Antarctic Treaty functions as a “closed workshop”, governance programs controlled by 29 states.

The drafting of the Antarctic Bill of Rights is an open process. This could be a way to help rebalance human interests in the region and work outside of geopolitical interests that risk irrevocably damaging the world’s last wild continent.

(This story has not been edited by the Devdiscourse team and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)


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