James Gray MP: Parliamentarians must keep up the pressure on Governments to act on threats to Antarctica
Ahead of COP26, we must learn from the successful international diplomacy used to agree The Antarctic Treaty, to tackle the climate crisis, writes James Gray MP.
Even as we mark and celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first sighting of the vast Continent of Antarctica on 30th January (claimed by the Russian Bellingshausen, but actually seen -and mapped - by Brit Edward Bransfield a few days earlier), it is remarkable how little most people know about it, and about its importance in the battle against climate change.
We know about Scott and Amundsen, perhaps a bit about Shackleton. We think we are right that its polar bears in the north, penguins in the south. But at least until Blue Planet 11, that is where most of our general knowledge about Antarctica ended.
Unlike the Arctic, which is a (rapidly melting) ocean, Antarctica is a landmass the size of the US and Mexico combined. The ice sheet which covers nearly all of it, is a mile thick in most places, up to three miles in the interior. And it is melting almost as dramatically, albeit perhaps less visibly, as the Arctic. The British Antarctic Survey work at the Thwaites Glacier, for example, from which an iceberg the size of Manhattan broke off a few years ago, is trying to assess whether the most pessimistic prediction – of a resulting increase in oceans in the Northern Hemisphere of up to 12 feet - can really be believed.
There are other threats to Antarctica too - from invasive species thanks to the burgeoning tourist trade, overfishing in some parts, and International reluctance to designate these most sensitive of oceans as Marine Protected Areas. The Ross Sea was designated as an MPA last year; but Russian and Chinese fishing interests have consistently prevented the other proposals, most notably for the Weddell Sea.
Yet amongst all of that, The Antarctic Treaty which designated the entire continent as a haven of peace and scientific research, banning commercial exploitation or militarisation, celebrated its 60th anniversary just before Christmas. What a triumph of International diplomacy the Treaty is – some lesson there for COP26, perhaps?
Britain can be proud of the role we have played in discovering Antarctica, leading scientific research on it, thanks to the British Antarctic Survey, leading the Antarctic Treaty system, the Convention for the Conservation of Marine Living Resource, and the Environmental Protection Protocol which effectively designated Antarctica as a natural reserve.
We hosted the first ever Assembly of Antarctic Parliamentarians here in London on 2/3 December, when eighteen nations, as diverse as the UK, Turkey, China, Russia, Argentina and Brazil, produced a consensual, yet firm and outspoken Conference Statement, calling amongst other things for urgent action on Climate Change. Parliamentarians have a real role to play in keeping up the pressure on Governments to act on all of these threats to Antarctica and to the Globe, and I hope that the Westminster Hall debate this afternoon may play some little part in that.
James Gray is the Conservative Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire and Chair of the APPG on Polar Regions.