The cold peace
The world faces a bleak 2009 as recession spreads and deepens, heightening the risk of protectionism and conflict. In Antarctica, the climate is harsh too, even in the few brief months on either side of the new year that pass as summer. But there is something hopeful taking place there, a sustained form of international co-operation that could be a model for better global governance and economic recovery in the wider world, this year and beyond.
Consider what is happening now on Dome A, deep in East Antarctica, not far from the South Pole. The area is covered by a giant slab of ice more than 4.5km thick in places. The East Antarctic ice sheet contains around 70 per cent of the world's fresh water, and would raise sea levels by 60 metres if it were to melt completely. Dome A is the highest, and perhaps coldest, place in Antarctica, with winter temperatures plunging to minus 60 degrees Celsius, and winds of over 200km/h.
In this inhospitable terrain, scientists from Australia, Britain, China, Germany, Japan and the United States are starting one of the most ambitious Antarctic research projects yet undertaken. Using sensors on the surface and in aircraft, they are peering deep into the ice to discover whether it is gaining or losing mass as a result of global warming, how it is moving and whether it is contributing to sea-level rises.
They are also drilling deep into the ice to extract cores in the belief that the oldest ice on the planet is around Dome A. Much of what we know about climate change comes from ice cores. They are like climate libraries, capturing gases and atmospheric particles that provide information on the climate from earlier ice ages and warm periods.
The Dome A research is part of wider co-operation that links the 46 member nations of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty and associated accords. The signatories include developed and developing economies. Together, they account for around 80 per cent of the world's population.
They are parties to a treaty system designed to ensure that the wars which have disfigured other continents do not occur in Antarctica, that the environment is protected, and that scientific research and collaboration have priority.
Signatories undertake to use Antarctica for peaceful purposes only. Military operations, nuclear explosive tests and the disposal of radioactive waste are not permitted. Disputes over territorial sovereignty are set aside. All commercial mining is banned.
Of course, many of the things that fuel human greed and armed conflict elsewhere are not present or readily exploitable in Antarctica. There are no indigenous inhabitants, arable land or forests. Only 2 per cent of Antarctica's 14 million sq km is ice-free and even that is ill-suited for human settlement.
The Antarctic Treaty is not exclusive. It allows any member of the United Nations to join. Of the 46 countries that have done so, 28 are consultative parties with the right to make collective decisions about management of the continent. Leading Asian nations such as China, India, Japan and South Korea have consultative status. This is open to any country that can show its commitment to Antarctica by conducting significant research there. In their regular meetings, consultative parties make decisions by consensus.
It is not, by any means, a perfect system of administration. Unregulated fishing and environmental damage still occur. But, generally, human impact is far more effectively controlled in and around Antarctica than on other continents.
Perhaps the local circumstances that make this kind of multinational governance possible are unique. But it certainly shows what enlightened leadership can do when nation-states put their differences aside and work together for the common good.
What could upset the Antarctic treaty system? Intrusion of the same kinds of territorial and resource rivalries that bedevil relations among people and countries on other continents.
Seven of the consultative parties - Australia, Argentina, Britain, Norway, France, New Zealand and Chile - have made territorial claims to around 75 per cent of the continent. Some claims overlap. The US and Russia reserve the right to make their own claims.
The treaty does not recognise or dispute territorial claims and no new ones can be asserted while it is in force. Oil, gas and minerals are known to exist in Antarctica and beneath its continental shelf. If global demand for them were to become acute, and the technology was available to exploit them, the treaty system might be challenged. But that seems unlikely for many years.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. firstname.lastname@example.org