Sat, Feb 28, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Global warming, trade cast gloom over North Pole

By Michel Rocard

Ever since mankind began to map the world, the North and South poles have fascinated us, both poetically and scientifically. But, save for a few whalers and explorers, not many people ever went to have a closer look. The serene stillness of the Arctic and Antarctic was a perfect match for human indifference. The onset of global warming, however, has changed everything.

Of course, that old indifference was not universal. In a rare spurt of collective political intelligence, and in order to prevent any risk of international conflict, an international treaty was signed in 1959 to govern Antarctica. This treaty dedicated Antarctica to exclusively peaceful aims. It recognized the existing territorial claims, declared them “frozen,” and forbade all physical assertions of sovereignty on the land of Antarctica.

The nature and content of that treaty were purely diplomatic. Only after its ratification did the first environmental issues arise. These were added to a revised treaty in 1972 by a convention on seal protection, followed, in 1980, by a convention on wildlife preservation. Most importantly, a protocol signed in Madrid in 1991 dealt with protecting the Antarctic environment.

As French prime minister, together with Australia’s then prime minister Robert Hawke, I was responsible for proposing the Madrid Protocol, which transformed the Antarctic into a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science for 50 years, renewable by tacit agreement. It was not an easy success. We had to reject first a convention on the exploitation of mineral resources that had already been negotiated and signed in Wellington in 1988, thus risking reopening very uncertain negotiations. We were bluffing, but our bluff worked.

The Antarctic environment is now effectively protected by the international community, which is the de facto owner of this continent, without any national differentiations. It is the only such case in the world. Indeed, international lawyers who are seeking to define the legal status of outer space — Who will own the moon? Who will own the resources that may one day be extracted there? — often look to the “Antarctic treaty system” for precedents and analogies.

But Antarctica had one great advantage, compared with the Arctic, which is now in peril: There were only penguins in Antarctica, not voters, especially voters of different nationalities.

Antarctica, though a huge continental archipelago, measuring 24 million square kilometers and covered in ice that is 4km to 5km thick, is far from any inhabited continent. The Arctic is only water, with the North Pole itself 4,200m under the surface. But five countries are very close: Norway, Russia, the US, Canada and Denmark (via Greenland, which will become independent in the coming years).

Throughout most of human history, ice almost completely barred all navigation in the seas surrounding the North Pole, and the Arctic was asleep in a silent indifference. Everything has changed radically during the last three years. The International Panel on Climate Change has established that global warming is not uniform: Whereas temperatures rose, on average, by 0.6˚C in the 20th century, the increase in the Arctic region was 2˚C.

Some estimates suggest that about 20 percent of the world’s total oil reserves lie under the Arctic. Last year, for the first time in human history, two navigation channels through the polar ice field — in the east along Siberia, and in the west along the Canadian islands — were open for a few months, allowing boats to go from Europe to Japan or California via the Bering Strait, rather than the Panama Canal or the Horn of Africa, thereby saving some 4,000km or 5,000km.

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