Making Our Blue Planet Great Again

Making Our Blue Planet Great Again

This is taken from the Antartica 2020 pitch at the 2018 Paris Peace Forum

“The war is not over. Millions are being killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.” That is what Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer, was told when he asked what was happening with the war. It was May 1916, and he had not had contact with the outside world since autumn 1914, when he and 27 crew had set out for Antarctica.

They had failed in their objective of crossing Antarctica when their vessel was crushed and sank in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea, but they had succeeded in one of the most daring crossings of the Southern Ocean, in three small boats.

Ernest Shackleton demonstrated extraordinary courage and  leadership in getting all his crew home alive, just so that many of them could be killed or injured in the war, some of them within weeks. And that Antarctic leadership is exactly what is needed today.

Antarctica2020 is a group of thought leaders from around the world who are answering Emmanuel Macron’s call to Make our Planet Great Again … and they are starting from the bottom up … of the this blue planet.

The Antarctica2020 leaders are working to secure the strong protection of 7 million km2 of Antarctica’s Southern Ocean by 2020. This is not a number or an objective they have cooked up by themselves, back in 2009 the 24 states and the EU who are the members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, committed to putting in place a system of protected areas in the Southern Ocean by 2012.

So far just two protected areas, or MPAs, have been designated. A smaller one of 94,000 km2 off South Orkney, and the Ross Sea MPA. The Ross Sea MPA is a huge 2.02 million km2, that equals in size most of Western Europe. But unlike Western Europe, this is a largely pristine ocean wilderness.

Three further MPA proposals are being considered: The East Antarctic (950,000 km2), the Weddell Sea (1.8 million km2) and the Antarctic Peninsula (450,000 km2). Do the maths, that is getting us close to the 7 million km2 that the Antarctica2020 leaders are working towards. And that is important, as the evidence is we should be protecting at least 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 – and many of the states present here have signed up to this target.

But decisions at CCAMLR are made by consensus, so winning agreement does not come easily. Between the 25 members there are varying, and sometimes conflicting interest. We need to rise above that.

The East Antarctic has been considered since 2011, and at this year’s annual meeting in Hobart which only concluded ten days ago, China and Russia were again the only members opposing designation.

The Weddell Sea proposal has been under consideration since 2016 but Norway is claiming there is, “a contrast in data availability”, which is a cunning way of frustrating designation … and that could go on for a long time. Whereas the proposal for an Antarctic Peninsula was only just made in October this year.

Ok, we need to take a break & step back. Take a deep breath … release … another and release. That second breath came courtesy of the ocean. Every second breath we breathe is provided by the ocean, it is the most incredible producer of oxygen and absorber of carbon. But more than that, the ocean is the origin of all life on earth. So if we are to Make our [Blue] Planet Great Again, this is where we must start.

And when it comes to ocean health, the Southern Ocean is like its beating heart. Powerful currents surge around Antarctica, gathering nutrients and regenerating the waters before they spiral off to feed the ocean globally.

So while the Southern Ocean may be at the bottom of the planet (from a northern hemisphere perspective), it is very much at is heart. If we are to restore the health of the ocean, and planet, then that is where we must start.

And our journey does not need to be as scary as Ernest Shackleton’s. What he and his 27 crew probably didn’t appreciate as they made their daring crossing of the Southern Ocean in three small boats, is that it makes up 90 percent of the world’s ice and fresh water or that Antarctic krill is the bedrock of the eco-system, and has been estimated to sequester the same amount of carbon as 35 million cars emit each year.

Ernest Shackleton and his crew possibly did know about the abundance of marine life, including seals and penguins, which they ate as many of as they could to stay alive, and they were terrified by the orca, killer whales, they could see swimming under the pack ice and looking up at them … probably thinking funny looking penguins.

Thankfully eating penguins is no longer necessary for the Antarctic community of scientists … nor is it allowed. But just as Ernest Shackleton and his crew faced the devastation of the First World War when they finally made it back to Europe, so too we face a global fight. We are facing the greatest challenge we have ever known, of combatting climate change and bio-diversity loss. Both threaten all life on Earth. And the Antarctica is a frontline.

Antarctica2020 is seeking to inspire collaboration and multilateral action by all states, not just the member states of CCAMLR, for them to think and act beyond national self-interest and to act globally in responding to this global threat.

The Southern Ocean is critical to global ocean, and planetary, health, and unlike many responses to climate change and bio-diversity loss, all the pieces are already in place. The governance structure (CCAMLR itself) and the commitment (from 2009 to designate large-scale MPAs) and the precedent. At the height of the Cold War, threatened by nuclear holocaust, states agreed to put aside the Antarctic for peace and science.

This level of agreement by [Cold] warring parties was unprecedented. If they did it then, we can do it now in the face of climate change and bio-diversity loss.

There are no indigenous communities to consider who may be affected negatively, rather the opposite, protection would encourage even more scientific work to be carried out. And the minimal economic interest of fishing can be offset with access in alternative areas.

Large-scale MPAs in the Southern Ocean will not stop climate change but they will improve the health of the ocean by allowing it to build resilience to the pressure we are putting it under. They will provide refuge for marine animals as warming waters and melting ice disrupts their habitat. They will provide reference zones for scientists to study and better understand the effects of climate change and bio-diversity loss, informing future decisions of ocean management.

And they provide an easy and quick opportunity for the global community to demonstrate solidarity and action in the face of global threats. The decisions required do not involve treacherous journeys across a rough frozen ocean in a small boat, but they does require similar courage and determination. Antarctica2020 is on hand to demonstrate and support both, join us …