Uniting in the protection of the great frozen continent
An op-ed by Tony Burke and I, published in The Age yesterday:
In the spirit of Mawson, Australia has been a leader in protecting Antarctica, a role that will continue in Hobart this week.
Antarctica and the ocean waters that surround it are among our planet’s greatest natural wonders.
Its ecosystems and vast ice sheets hold 70 per cent of our planet’s fresh water and 90 per cent of its ice.
Australia has a deep affinity with this extraordinary place, not just because of our proximity or our Antarctic legacy but because we recognise its global environmental significance.
As we mark the centenary of Douglas Mawson’s heroic 1911-1914 Antarctic journey, we’re reminded of its importance to our country and the reason we are committed to its protection.
Put simply, Antarctica affects how the planet works. Its role in global water storage and its influence on our climate are immense. And crucially for Australia, the impacts of Antarctic change have a major impact on our immediate region and the Southern Ocean.
Only two decades ago, in 1991, the wilderness and climate values of the Antarctic were nearly lost to the world when vast swaths of Antarctica became earmarked for potential mining.
When the decision on mining operations came before the Australian cabinet, the then prime minister, Bob Hawke, contacted his French counterpart, Michel Rocard, and together they blocked a pro-mining consensus among other Antarctic nations. Hawke and Rocard turned the tide in international debate and locked in unanimous agreement for a moratorium on Antarctic mining and rededication to its wilderness values.
Our global campaign to preserve Antarctica will again be to the fore at the 35th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting that opens in Hobart today. The treaty was signed in 1961, initially to ban weapon deployment in Antarctica, and from 1991 to prevent mining. This year’s meeting brings together about 300 delegates from among the world’s 50 Antarctic nations.
The Antarctic Treaty system is a model for international co-operation. For more than 50 years it has realised its ambitious goal of setting aside an entire continent as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science and protected for future generations.
Despite the turbulence of past decades, the Antarctic Treaty has endured, indeed flourished. Its membership has grown from 12 original members in 1961 to 50 today. It includes two new members – Malaysia and Pakistan – who will be welcomed for the first time in Hobart.
Under the treaty, a comprehensive system for environmental protection of Antarctica has been developed, featuring a protocol championed by Australia, together with France and Spain, which permanently bans mining there. Australian scientists are at the forefront of international efforts to unlock Antarctica’s many secrets.
Hobart is home to some of the world’s leading Antarctic and Southern Ocean research and educational facilities, where a formidable body of world-class researchers explore questions of global significance, including the role of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in global climate systems and the impacts of climate change on Australia and the world.
During this week’s meeting, Australia will be proposing environmental initiatives that will include enhanced protection of special areas, clean-up and remediation of former waste sites, preventing the introduction of non-native species and managing the implications of climate change.
We will work to ensure tourism and maritime operations are safe and sustainable.
And we will seek to make institutional improvements to support the activities of the parties to the treaty, including by enhancing public understanding of Antarctica.
Today, as in 1911, Australia is a leading Antarctic nation. We continue to follow in Mawson’s footsteps, taking on the isolation, blizzards and inhospitable conditions to understand Antarctica, its natural processes, its flora and fauna, and the impacts we have on it.
Through our scientific endeavours and international collaboration in Antarctica, we strive to understand our planet and our relationship with it.
So what would Douglas Mawson make of it all? He would recognise in Australia’s modern Antarctic endeavours many elements of his legacy that resonate through the years, especially a dedication to scientific excellence and a willingness to lead from the front in Antarctica.
It’s a proud legacy and one in which all Australians should take pride.