2017 Virtual Edition: Jessica O’Reilly

Reading through my original article, I am reminded of my novice status at the time of this 2006 Antarctic Treaty meeting, a status both limiting and generative. I knew less; I had to spend more time preparing and more time asking questions. My notes were exhaustive, recording every detail without much filter for levels of importance. But I also had the capacity to be surprised, as I was by the events surrounding the Larsemann Hills ASMA and the proposed new Indian research station. I was, I think, the most surprised person in the room during that debate, as it contradicted the generic storyline usually told about the Antarctic Treaty system and so neatly encapsulated the postcolonial hierarchies of both diplomacy and science.

I have continued to attend the ATCM since that first meeting in Edinburgh, for a while as a delegate and climate advisor with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO), and later, for several years, as the environmental NGO advisor to the United States delegation to the meetings. No longer collecting data, I participate in an applied sense. I know people better at the meetings now; I consider the meetings my annual trips to my Antarctic field site, though in a new setting each year.

Decision making at the meetings is relational, and skilled diplomats have worked to build these relationships, sometimes over decades of service. This service extends to the commitment to Antarctic science as an organizing rationale for human existence in Antarctica as well as a discursive strategy for geopolitical negotiations. This reliance on scientific expertise as a political discourse is both powerful and dangerous within the Antarctic Treaty System; and this power and danger is amplified under recent governmental threats towards scientific expertise in contemporary governance.

The original article focused on the international governance of Antarctica and the ways in which outlier activities are reframed to become about science, instead of explicitly about sovereignty. Indian delegates advocating for the new base, over the course of a year, shifted their rationalization of the base’s location to de-emphasize the fabulous territorialization of establishing a right to develop that area due to the location of the Gondwanan bed of the Godavari River and instead emphasized the research justification for locating the base in that spot.

The relationship between science—and its universal, objective, and normative values—and concerns over nationalism and sovereignty are part of the weft of global modernity. Space races, innovation investment, exploration, the nuclear club, agricultural extension programs, and public universities (to name some examples) tightly bind together state power and expert knowledge. And a modern dream that expert knowledge will flow into rational decision making persists, sometimes with great success, such as with the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone depleting chemicals, and sometimes in a much more uneven fashion, as we observe the past two decades of international climate negotiations.[1]

The Antarctic Treaty (1959), negotiated at the peak of the Cold War over explicit concern from claimant states about increasing Soviet and American interest in Antarctica, is often lauded as a triumph of scientific and international cooperation. In effect, the treaty freezes territorial claims in the interest of making the continent a preserve of peace, science, and environmental protection. My book The Technocratic Antarctic (Cornell University Press, 2017) explores the ways in which this system partially works and fails. Membership in the system is limited to states which can demonstrate scientific activity in Antarctica: an expensive and logistically complicated proposition, though a small number of Parties, notably the Netherlands, manage this without a permanent research facility. Typically, the standard Antarctic Treaty member will have one or more national research stations to justify their membership, conduct research, and, for some claimant states, to maintain a consistent presence in their historical claim.

Obviously, this membership requirement keeps poorer countries from participating in Antarctic governance. This has not been without contestation. Malaysia, in particular, issued statements at the United Nations General Assembly from 1983 onwards on the Question of Antarctica, suggesting an alternate governance structure in which Antarctica was managed in the interest of all humankind, instead of a handful of wealthy, developed states.

This regular intervention made many of the Antarctic Treaty delegates uncomfortable, and government officials encouraged Antarctic Treaty-state scientists to forge research alliances with Malaysia as a form of soft diplomacy, enfolding Malaysian scientists and policy makers into the Antarctic Treaty System. As Malaysian scientists worked in Antarctica, the state met the criteria for membership to the Antarctic Treaty and the officials invited Malaysian diplomats to attend the meetings, which they accepted for several years, eventually signing the Antarctic Treaty in 2011. The future of the Question of Antarctica at the United Nations is unclear. Effectively, actors within the Antarctic Treaty System interpolated critics into their existing frameworks of power, using scientific collegiality to grease the diplomatic gears.

If anything unifies many of the Antarctic Treaty negotiators, it is a measure of disdain for the United Nations. In general (though with exceptions), the parties to the Antarctic Treaty, particularly the original signatories (Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States and the USSR), resist any incursion of United Nations management or policy extending below 60 degrees south in latitude, the border of the Antarctic Treaty Territory. This was abundantly clear at this year’s Antarctic Treaty meeting in Beijing, in which parties discussed the upcoming United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity meetings on the marine protection of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). Policy around bioprospecting in Antarctica has been stonewalled—most vocally by the United States—due to complex matters around benefit sharing and the meandering, slow, and uncertain pipeline from publicly funded research to patent and profit. The Antarctic Treaty members claim that they are the competent authorities to manage bioprospecting in the region, and the increased interest from the UN may move some policy decisions along in the coming years. In this case, intergovernmental organizations, not states, are conducting boundary work that has a long history.

State sovereignty continues to matter in Antarctica, often referring to geopolitical arrangements elsewhere on Earth, and always with a nod to scientific discourse. In my original article, I wrote about India’s plan to build their new base in an ASMA. Along similar lines, Chinese Antarctic program leaders have been trying to gain approval to create an ASMA at their Kunlun Station near Dome A, an ice-coring site. China has been emerging as an Antarctic power over the decade I have observed meetings.[2] Alongside their national development activities, managers in the Chinese Antarctic program also have worked to develop leadership in the international management options afforded by the Antarctic Treaty and its Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection. Since 2013, China has proposed an ASMA at Dome A, and has been unable to muster much support for it. They have followed the requisite steps, including holding online intersessional contact groups for other program officers to provide feedback, but they have not managed to make a convincing argument for the ASMA. One simple reason is that ASMAs are meant to be multiple-use, multi-stakeholder areas. Dome A is a research station run by a single national Antarctic program.

There is another single-state ASMA: the one that encompasses the South Pole, managed by the United States. That ASMA management team would be quick to note that while the United States is the only country running the ASMA, that station hosts a significant number of international researchers and several tourism operators bring visitors to the area, requiring management to preserve the multiple interests of people at the South Pole. To do this, the South Pole ASMA designates sectors that preserve some of the natural qualities valued by researchers there: dark, quiet, clean air, and downwind.

Chinese negotiators, of course, lean on this example to lend legitimacy to their argument, usually meeting a response that the planned international and tourist activities are anticipated, planned for, or at the Memorandum of Understanding stage instead of already implemented multi-stakeholder activities. Nonetheless, the Chinese delegates have not been able to gain traction on their ASMA, being encouraged instead to craft a set of site guidelines, a smaller-scale practice often implemented in Antarctic tourism sites. While many consultative parties have discouraged the ASMA, they also have sought a workaround for the Chinese and the Antarctic communities that continues to legitimize science and the environmental management tools in place, along with the informal stratifications of power in the Treaty system.

The United Nations and Antarctic Treaty Systems, as Western institutions formed in the mid-twentieth century, impose Western values and organize structures onto various projects and regions of the planet. However, as the United Nations leadership seeks to be inclusive of all member states, in tangible and nominal ways, people within the Antarctic Treaty System have taken a preservationist approach to its institution, most notably through formal disinterest in acknowledging the changing geopolitical landscape elsewhere on Earth and through adherence to epistemic frameworks, particularly those from the natural and physical sciences.

Scientific expertise in decision-making rationalizes policy options, and large-scale data can help scientists and decision makers observe trends beyond the typically observable human scale. Debates over the quality, methods, and rigor of scientific studies, too, form part of the legitimacy of scientific expertise and science advice. However, oblique dismissal of science advice as a political maneuver—including the watering down of science findings in a search for political consensus—can make scientific expertise a tactical discourse instead of a legitimate source of decision-making advice. Institutional approaches to expertise, as part of bureaucratic culture, are particularly important in this time of widespread sidelining of expertise in the United States federal government.

Nebulous science/policy zones—using the Antarctic Treaty system as an example, contain discursive and material formations of science and policy. Scientists and policy makers massage these formations to adhere to institutional ideals, at both international and state scales. An element that featured in the original article, and cannot go without mention here, is the political power of fabulous geographies, inescapable in our imaginations of the Antarctic. The exceptionalism of the Antarctic environment, and the ways in which artists, scientists, policy makers, tourists, and logistics workers seek to make the Antarctic as place that is home, as well as a place that fits into our geopolitical imaginaries and our national narratives, serves as a backdrop and an engine to these negotiations. The Antarctic Treaty system as an institution, with its primacy of science, international peaceful cooperation, and environmental protection, emerges from this exceptionalism, seemingly outside most Earthly activity and politics. Antarctica’s exceptionalism enables both its idealism and its trouble.


[1] If the United Nations Framework Convention’s Paris Agreement tells us anything about the direction of international environmental agreements, it is that state sovereignty has come to matter more in international diplomacy. The structure of the Paris Agreement is bottom up, with states submitting pledges that the UNFCCC hopes become more ambitious over the years. No country’s independent plan is contingent on those of any other state, making this policy novel in its structure.

[2] Anne-Marie Brady. The Emerging Politics of Antarctica. London: Routledge, 2012, 31-49.