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Home / Articles / Views / Perspectives /  One good treaty deserves another
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Thursday, December 10,2009

One good treaty deserves another

By Gerry Leape

As world leaders gather in Copenhagen, Denmark, to address the challenges of climate change, it’s worth reminding ourselves that while outcomes for such efforts are not guaranteed, sometimes they work. One example can be seen in the Antarctic Treaty — a landmark environmental pact signed 50 years ago this month. For while Antarctica today seems a vast, peaceful land reserved for emperor penguins and intrepid polar scientists, the case was quite different, once upon a time.

Cold War anxieties were at an alltime high in the mid-1950s. Yet, just two years after Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised to “bury” the West, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took a dramatic gamble that he could win international support — including that of the Soviet Union — to protect the globe’s last remaining wild frontier, the continent of Antarctica. The world has reaped the benefits of this wager for half a century.

The product of seven weeks of intense negotiations, the treaty ensures that Antarctica will forever “be open to all nations to conduct scientific or other peaceful activities.” But in addition to ending a decades-long race for land, the Antarctic Treaty has become the cornerstone of a series of subsequent key environmental agreements and innovative conservation mechanisms.

Although covered in ice and battered with sub-freezing winds, the coastal areas, islands and seas surrounding Antarctica are rich with life. And while the penguin might be the region’s most well-known resident, Antarctica also houses species ranging in size from the tiny shrimp-like krill — the bedrock of the Antarctic food chain — to the mighty blue whale. Indeed, researchers have documented more than 1,200 known marine and land species — a degree of biodiversity some biologists argue rivals even that of the Galapagos Islands.

To help ensure that fishing and other activities are conducted sustainably, parties to the treaty in the 1980s created the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to regulate activities in the waters around Antarctica. In the 1990s, to meet new challenges and realities, the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection was adopted.

Together, these agreements establish environmental principles for the conduct of all activities in the area. This includes requiring that decisions on activities, such as fishing of critical species like Antarctic krill, are based on sound science, are precautionary in nature and take account of the whole ecosystem’s well-being. And while the conservation record of treaty bodies such as the commission has been mixed, the protections created by the Madrid Protocol are an example of international resource stewardship at its best.

Described in a 1960 New York Times editorial as “a bright spot in the otherwise gloomy landscape of international relations,” the Antarctic Treaty’s successful negotiation and ratification was by no means assured. In fact, the treaty faced early and harsh criticism from skeptics in the U.S. Senate who warned that the pact would be used by the Soviets to “encourage military development” of the continent.

History has shown that these fears proved groundless. The promotion of collaborative international research has created an invaluable global laboratory, with both scientific and diplomatic benefits that resonate far beyond the frozen continent. Indeed, the number of signatories has grown from the 11 nations personally invited by Eisenhower to the negotiations to 46 countries today, accounting for about 80 percent of the earth’s population.

With a slowdown plaguing the global economy, some argue that reaching an effective international agreement on climate is impossible. Yet even though the odds may be long, some gambles are worth the venture.

The eyes of the world are on Copenhagen now, as we look for a successor to the 1997 Kyoto accords.

Although a comprehensive climate agreement may not be assured, the possibility of definitive progress is far from zero.

As they collaborated 50 years ago, now is the time for leaders from around the globe to set aside short-term political interests, move past diplomatic doubts and work together to combat the danger of climate change. Global warming is a threat that knows no boundaries and, as Eisenhower himself once so pointedly noted, “Pessimism never won any battle.”

Gerry Leape is a senior officer with the Pew Environment Group and directs the Pew Antarctic Krill Conservation Project. Readers may write to him at Pew Environment Group, 901 E Street NW, Washington, D.C. 20004;gleape@pewtrusts.org.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.

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