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The Poles melt, we drown


In 1982, the less than one-year old Caribbean small island state, Antigua and Barbuda, raised the proposition at the United Nations that Antarctica should be regarded as a global common similar to the deep-sea bed and should be managed by the UN for the good of mankind.
Few could understand why a small island-state would want to raise a matter that seemed to be “big country politics”. Today, as “polar ice caps melt and small islands drown”, the reasons for Antigua and Barbuda’s concern in 1982 have become very apparent.

In 1982, arrangements for the governance of Antarctica lay exclusively in the hands of the signatory states to the Antarctic Treaty System. It was an exclusive arrangement between 12 countries. Of the 12, seven -- Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom -- have territorial claims, sometimes overlapping (as in the case of Britain and Argentina in the region of the Falklands/Malvinas islands). The US and Russia also maintain a “basis of claim”.

As matters turned out, Antigua and Barbuda was too recent an independent nation and lacked the resources to continue to press the case for the UN declaring Antarctica “a global common” that should be managed by the UN for the good of all nations. It was left to Malaysia to take up the cudgels.

In 1983, Malaysia argued at the UN that that Antarctica should be a global heritage similar to that of the high seas and any benefits derived from Antarctica should be shared by all and not only the exclusive right of certain vested countries and parties. Malaysia also argued that the pristine “Antarctic environment be protected and preserved”.

The seven countries with claims to Antarctica were as unhappy with the Malaysia proposal, as they were with Antigua and Barbuda’s aborted first raising of the issue. Nonetheless, Malaysia garnered sufficient support to ensure that until 1996, the Question of Antarctica was discussed at the UN. But, in 2005 it dropped off the UN agenda.

There is clear evidence now that the worry about preserving the pristine condition of Antarctica was very valid when it was raised in the UN in 1982. Human activity in the area and climate change in Antarctica and in the Arctic are adversely affecting small island states and vulnerable coastal areas of larger countries.

This point was well made at a conference most people would say small island states in tropical climates had no business attending. The International Polar Year Conference 2012, under the theme, “From Knowledge to Action” was held in Montreal, Canada, from 22-27 April. Organized by several partners especially the World Meteorological Organization, Ronald Jean Jumeau, Ambassador for Climate Change, for the small island state of Seychelles, made a compelling argument for the continued active concern by small island states for what is happening in Antarctica.

His remarks at the Montreal Conference have particular relevance because small island states and developing countries with vulnerable coasts (such as Belize and Guyana) appear to have lost the toe-hold at the UN for discussing Antarctica and the effects on them of melting glaciers. In 2005, the UN agreed, in its First Committee, that Antarctica would not be placed on the agenda of the UN general Assembly. It hasn’t been on the agenda since then. But, it should be.

Here are Ambassador Jumeau’s remarks on the effects of climate change in the two Poles: “The worse the situation gets in the Arctic and the Antarctic, the more worried we islanders get. For the more your ice melts in the north and the south, and on the mountain tops and in the glaciers of the world, the more our world, in tiny Seychelles just 4 degrees south of the Equator and in the rest of the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Caribbean as well, the more our world goes under. As the poles melt, we drown”.

He pointed out: “The melting ice at the poles is not just contributing to sea level rise, it is affecting the oceans as drivers of the world’s climate as well. The seas around our islands, some of which are the lowest land on Earth, are rising, and coastal erosion is getting worse and worse to the extent that some islands may be swept away before the waves cover them and wipe them off the face of the Earth”.

The ambassador ended by saying: “The poles’ global linkages make the Arctic and the Antarctic a common, a global, heritage of the whole community of man and womankind”.

And, if it might be felt that the Seychelles Ambassador’s warnings are self-serving, this is what Ban-ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General said about the situation in 2007: “Antarctica is on the verge of a catastrophe – for the world.” He offered figures to support his claim: “glaciers on King George Island have shrunk by 10 percent, while some in Admiralty Bay have retreated by 25 kilometres; the 87-kilometre “Larsen B ice sheet” collapsed several years ago and disappeared within weeks; the entire Western Antarctic Ice Shelf is at risk -- It is all floating ice, one fifth of the entire continent. If it broke up, sea levels could rise by 6 meters or 18 feet.” Since then, matters have got worse.

Work is being done by small island states to raise attention to the growing threat to their existence, and to the dangers posed to their productive areas and human habitats – both food security and human dislocation are real issues.

This matter should be forcefully pressed at the forthcoming Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference in the interest of all small island states and vulnerable coastal areas. It should also vigorously be pushed back on to the UN agenda however resistant may be those countries that regard Antarctica as their exclusive preserve.


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