Earlier this week, in response to CSIRO's decision to slash its Antarctic science programme, The Interpeter posted 'Australia’s Antarctic Nightmare' by Dr Neil Hamilton. The post used dangerously simplified legal argument to conclude successive cuts to Australia’s science programme in Antarctica will lead to international discord on our southern flank.
Panic as a nation should not be based on a discourse of alarmist headlines and narrow legal arguments over Antarctic sovereignty. Rather, if we were to panic, it should be because we aren’t supporting the science that will foretell our economic and physical futures.
The Antarctic Treaty was created to avoid territorial discord and militarisation at the farthest end of the planet. Article IV places all the territorial claims, including Australia’s, into a form of abeyance for the Treaty’s duration. The Treaty does not diminish or renunciate Australia’s, or any other, claim. It also explicitly prevents others using activities during the period of the Treaty as a basis for their own claim.
The Treaty aims to foster cooperation, peace, and security, so that all nations are able to benefit from the globally important scientific research it so richly delivers to us. The Treaty has no expiry date.
If Antarctica were to ever be a scene of discord, the legal basis of Australia’s sovereignty would not rely on just one case. It would rely on a complex matrix based on customary international law, decided upon by international tribunals that emphasise the binding nature of agreements and stability between nations. To oversimplify and politicise the exhaustingly comprehensive legal argument is to agitate for political discord, the very discord the Treaty quells.
These arguments detract from the brilliance of the Treaty’s stunning achievement of peaceful cooperation, and from the true gravity of the potential knowledge lost from poor management decisions that impact upon some of the most important scientific endeavours of our time.
Criticism for CSIRO cutting its Antarctic ice core program is justified. Australians should be decrying the likely loss of capacity in both the ice core scientific research, and the scientists that have discovered how to extract and measure greenhouse gasses from tiny bubbles in ancient cores, obtained from a desolate place few will ever visit. We should be mourning the loss of a laboratory which created a 1000-year plus record of greenhouse gas increases. Australia’s Antarctic science community has a web of contributors, and the CSIRO cuts will create gaps in our critical knowledge base.
Australia’s Antarctic, climate and marine scientists should be celebrated. These women and men are on the front line of an environmental disaster that is unfolding before our eyes. What is needed is continued, increasing, long-term funding, and certainty to ensure the climate observations upon which we base our economic futures are the most accurate they can be.
Australia’s Antarctic Division science program received a boost in the new Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan. This strategy also seeks to increase our influence and presence in Antarctica, through long-term budgetary support. I agree with Dr Hamilton, there have indeed been successive cuts to the Antarctic Division’s budget over the past decade, and funding decreased at a time where we needed presence on the continent the most.
The plan to venture to the hinterland is an important one, but not just for national and scientific prestige. It is more important to travel further inland to unveil more secrets of climate-driven change beneath the ice that could foretell the lapping of seawater at the front doors of our coastal homes. It was the research we needed to do before five Pacific islands vanished, for arguments of territory take on a different social, physical and legal dimension when it disappears beneath the sea.
The aged Aurora Australis is loyally serving Australia until our new icebreaker arrives in 2020. Its accident in Horseshoe Harbour in February showed the strength of cooperation between parties to the Treaty, and the reliance upon each other in the most frigid of environments. Arguments of who has the bigger boat, and why, are really only important when there are lives to be saved.
It is time now to develop our capacity, to support, nurture, and inspire our young scientists, and to elevate and stabilise the place of public good science. The Antarctic science community is part of the fabric of Hobart society, but it is also a source of national pride, which we should cherish for its impossibly complex achievements in climate-related science. Such acts of support will lead to stability and security in a community fully aware of Australia’s climate future, based upon the ancient records that our scientists construct, and the continuously improving observations of our atmosphere.
Security in our nation, our region, and our world is based on stability and knowledge. Let us agitate for greater support and recognition of our beleaguered science community and leave aside the superficial arguments that barely scrape the surface of territorial claims to Antarctica. Antarctica is a battleground, not for cheap political points-scoring, but for gauging the safety and security of the entire world facing unprecedented changes in its climate.