Here's a note from Karli, oceans campaigner at Greenpeace New Zealand, who is has been in in Baltimore, attending the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty.
My first impressions arriving to this historic meeting of the Antarctic Treaty parties was the urgency of the task ahead. Scientists who have been working on International Polar Year projects gave truly alarming descriptions of climate change impacts already being felt at the Poles.
In the oceans, the impacts of climate change (warming and the loss of sea ice) and ocean acidification (the evil twin of climate change) coupled with increased whaling and fishing activities spell trouble for this fragile marine environment.
Being land mammals ourselves, we humans tend to be a little biased in protecting our planet and the animals and plants we share it with. While the continent of Antarctica is protected (no-one’s been out there shooting penguins or killing seals for a good few years) there seems to be a blind spot when it comes to the oceans. Hello – whales are still being harpooned, krill literally vacuumed out of the ocean and toothfish being plundered by rampant fishing fleets with a fair few pirates amoung them (like the fish-thieving Paloma V and the drug-smuggling Banzare ). Does that sound like a "natural reserve dedicated to peace and science" to you?
The protection of Antarctic waters has become an urgent game of catch up – we need to get marine reserves in place to stop the degradation of this unique ocean and restore it to health to enable it to cope with climate change. We already know from coral reefs that a healthy reef is much more resilient to coral bleaching (a devastating and escalating impact of climate change) than a damaged and unprotected reef. You can hear a top marine scientists talk about it here.
We know much less known about Antarctic waters, and are still on a voyage of discovery to document an understand the life found in this harsh environment (check out these exciting discoveries of deep sea species and on land, microbial extremophiles living in briny seawater-like pools under glaciers). It makes sense then to be a bit careful - we enviro-geeks call this the precautionary principle, but really it’s just common sense. That means protecting Antarctic waters with marine reserves, to make sure they are in the best possible health to deal with what our carbon emissions are going to throw at them.
After my first impressions of the urgency facing us, this meeting has brought a growing frustration at the pace of progress and the lack of clear decisions and plans for action to tackle the many issues. There has been a positive step in terms of the endorsement of the work of the Convention of the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR), a body set up under the Antarctic Treaty, to create a network of marine protected areas for Antarctic waters. But this step, while important, hardly seemed the sort of achievement you’d want to mark your fiftieth birthday with. Fortunately, CCAMLR meets again later this year, giving one last chance to get something in place before the Antarctic Treaty’s 50th year summit in December.
Treaty parties also failed to send a strong message to the world about the impacts of climate change on Antarctica, and the urgent need for action on climate change. Compare that with the Arctic Council, whose website front page is unequivocal: "We need a global climate agreement" Their recent meeting in was preceded by a special ministerial meeting co-hosted by the chair of the Arctic Council, Jonas Gahr Støre, and climate champion Al Gore, to call for concerted action in the run-up to Copenhagen.
Here at the Antarctic meeting, there was a distinct feeling that Treaty Parties were hamstrung by weak policies on climate change back in their capitals. The New Zealand delegation described the installation of wind-power at their Antarctic base in the Ross Sea. Every little helps, and as they pointed out, it is important to set a good example. But whatever difference New Zealand might make in the energy we use to keep our scientists warm and fed in Antarctica is being absolutely undermined by New Zealand’s position in global climate negotiations, as Geoff has been reporting from Bonn.
So, as far as responding to the climate crisis and giving urgent protection to Antarctic waters goes, there is far too little to report from this meeting. It’s now up to Treaty Parties to take the next step through CCAMLR to establish marine reserves and give everyone something to celebrate on 1 December 2009, the anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty.