Geopolitics of the Poles in the Anthropocene Age

By: Staff Reporter
We need to realise that climate change under the Anthropocene, the present era of human civilization, may have long ranging impacts on the two Polar regions and therefore make some essential policy changes accordingly.
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 Science and politics are intricately intertwined more so in Polar Regions where science ensures access. The Antarctic Treaty has provided an excellent platform for resolving minor irritants even though some experts feel that the Treaty is lately hollowing (Hemmings, 2017). Even at the height of the cold war period when the ‘the potential for the Cold War to extend into the coldest part of the globe’ (Chimu Adventures, 2016) was appearing to be real, the emergence of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 was a breather. The positive outcome of the in-depth negotiations put aside, albeit for a time, the controversial issue of territorial claims of some select nations.

Arctic and Antarctic governance is founded on the principles of mutual trust and cooperation. Antarctica has a formal Treaty System (ATS) in place with 53 states party to the Treaty, 29 of which, including all 12 original signatories having consultative (voting) status. Arctic states, however, are sovereign and can enjoy jurisdiction over major parts of the Arctic Ocean by virtue of the provisions of UN Law of the Sea. The Arctic states are taking care of its pristine environment by adhering to Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) under the Arctic Council.

There is a school of thought in the US, which advocates that the country’s interests can be better met by being within the ATS rather than reserving its right for the future (Joyner and Theis, 1987). There were also doubts raised as to what happens when the period of the Treaty lapses. The misconception that the life of the Treaty is limited, is not founded on facts. The provisions only provide a possibility wherein any consultative party ‘may request that a meeting be held as soon as practicable to review the operations of the Treaty.’ (Antarctic Treaty, 1961).

The laws governing the Arctic and Antarctic regimes have a conspicuous contrast. While the Antarctica Treaty System (ATS) is a highly developed, progressive and comprehensive document, the same qualitative attributes are missing from the AEPS or Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (Patel, 2017).

In the Arctic, three issues essentially related to territorial claim, resource exploitation and risks to the environment are emergent. The military discord appears to be dissolving. The scientific cooperation among the Arctic nations for exploration of the hidden resources of the Arctic Ocean has shown an encouraging trend in the recent past. This is well demonstrated by the submissions made by some of the member states to the UN Commission on Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) for their claims of the extended continental shelf beyond their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). When all the claims of Arctic nations will be submitted to the CLCS, some extending even up to the North Pole, it is clear that most of the Arctic Ocean will be claimed leaving negligible parts for the ‘common heritage’.

There are also going to be overlapping claims for some areas of the Ocean. The sea ice in the Arctic is vanishing fast and as per estimates of IPCC, 2013, the Arctic sea may be free of multiyear sea ice by 2030. The long term impact of the Arctic ice melt is yet to be fathomed as it would have political, commercial, navigational, security and environmental issues for the states surrounding the Arctic Ocean. No nation, including India, can remain a silent spectator and immune from the developments in the region. The opening of the sea routes and the exploration of hydrocarbons present economic opportunities which Indian companies can also exploit. On the negative side, the enhancement of economic activity in the Arctic Region will further accelerate global warming and lead to large sea level rise impacting the global climate.

Whether the world likes or it not, the Arctic Sea is unlikely to be governed by an Antarctica-like international treaty. The Arctic has virtually become the inland water space of the five coastal states—Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States. There is, therefore, no more room to argue that the region may be treated in the same manner as Antarctica. A concept which makes the region a global common may not be practical for Arctic. India, however, needs to remain engaged with leading organisations such as the Arctic Council where many important decisions are imminent, which can have a direct or indirect impact on its economy. Indian institutions, universities and think tanks engaged in Arctic science should pay greater attention to the study of analysis of the developments in the Arctic Region and ensure greater participation in the working groups constituted by the Arctic Council and/or the International Arctic Science Committee.

In Antarctica, the main issue remains environmental protection and of course the claims over territory, though the later has never been part of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM) discussions.

Though outwardly, everything appears to be fine and robust about the treaty governance, there are issues that still need resolution. As Hemmings (2017) puts now ‘the 2009 Washington Ministerial Declaration on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty adopts a positive tone, reaffirms the historic verities of the ATS and betrays not an iota of concern about any deficiencies or strategic challenges before that system’.

The ATS has matured enough to adopt the ‘recommendations’ on newer issues that arise from climate change, biodiversity, tourism and invasion of non-native species.

“The present era or Anthropocene, carries profound physical as well as policy implications for the Southern Polar Regions and effectively questions the proclaimed exceptionalism and legal-political–ethical boundaries of the Antarctic Regime” (Chaturvedi, 2017). There are issues related to the Antarctic Treaty, its future as also the response of these regions to climate change processes. Chaturvedi opines that considering the critical geopolitics of Anthropocene for its limited engagement with the ethical as well as geopolitical considerations surrounding the knowledge–power interface, sustainability of core values of the Antarctic Treaty System and the questions of authority, legitimacy, effectiveness, responsibility and accountability needs to constitute an important discussion point in the ATCM.

In fact, climate change is gradually occupying the prime position in the Agenda of both Antarctic and Arctic governance. “Climate change has become a matter of security in recent policy discussions. The scale of the transformations we are living through is slowly dawning on policy makers….. our living in the Anthropocene, have yet to be thought through carefully. The basic geopolitical premises in security thinking are now in need of a radical overhaul in light of the insights from earth system science. Simplistic assumptions of environmental change leading directly to conflict are misleading at best and dangerous at worst” (Dalby, 2014). Though ‘Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (in accordance to Article XI of the Treaty) adopted in 1991, recognises that the protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems is in the interest of all mankind, the adoption of liability Annex (under Article 16 of the Protocol, the parties are obliged to formulate procedures related to liability for damage arising from activities taking place in the Antarctic Treaty area) dealing with environmental emergencies is still a major issue being discussed by contracting parties in several of the meetings of ATCMs now. What is encouraging is that 17 of the consultative parties have either formulated their national laws on this subject or are in the process of doing so. India too is in near closure of its Antarctic law. First drafts have already been circulated among legal experts and the scientists involved in Antarctic affairs.



Antarctica Treaty, 1961. The Antarctica Treaty. Signed at Washington, on  December 1, 1959, art. XII, para. 2(a), 12 U.S.T. 794, T.I.A.S. No. 4780, 402 U.N.T.S. 71.

Chaturvedi, S., 2017. A critical Geopolitics of Anthropocene and Antarctic Climate Dilemma.  Abstract 4th Conference on Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya-Arctic –Antarctic (SaGHAA 2017) Nov. 30 – Dec. 1, 2017, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 159.

Chimu Adventures,  2016. Politics in Antarctica – Territorial Claims. Available at:

Dalby, S., 2014. Rethinking Geopolitics: Climate Security in the Anthropocene.  Global Policy, 5(1): 1-9.

Hemmings,  Allen. D., 2017. The Hollowing of Antarctic Governance. (In) Goel, P.S., Ravindra, R., and Chattopadhyay, S (Eds.), Science and Geopolitics of the White World, Arctic- Antarctic-Himalaya. Springer Polar Geography, Springer International Publishing, 95-113.

Joyner, Christopher C., and Theis, Ethel R., 1987. The United States and Antarctica: Rethinking the Interplay of Law and Interests. Cornell International Law Journal, 20(1): 65-102.

Patel, B. N., 2017. A quest for international environmental law stability and certainty in the Arctic waters: Is Antarctic environmental Regime suitable and feasible Abstract 4th Conference on Science and Geopolitics of Himalaya-Arctic-Antarctic (SaGHAA 2017) Nov. 30–Dec. 1, 2017, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India, 150.


Inputs from: Dr Sanjay Chaturvedi, Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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