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
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
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
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;firstname.lastname@example.org.
Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.