Is there an up-side to an ice-free Antarctica?
I have come the very long way around to being concerned about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). As a teenager I became interested in geography, then geomorphology, and finally geology. Having tried my hand at that for a few years, I went into hydrogeology; but the goal of helping poor people somehow escaped me. Now, however, I believe I have found my niche.
This is because if we don’t try to stop it, ACD will impact (actually it is already impacting) people in poor countries the hardest: As Adam Corner pointed out in the New Scientist magazine a year ago people in poor countries have no time for climate change scepticism. It is therefore the asymmetric nature of our ACD problem that drives me: Those who bear the greatest responsibility for having caused the problem are not the first to suffer; whereas those who bear the least responsibility for it (so far) are those that will suffer the longest and the greatest. Therefore, despite the fact that we are in the middle of a global debt crisis, investment in ACD mitigation must be seen as just that; an investment. However, enough context; what about Antarctica…?
I am grateful to Paul Handover – over at the excellent, multi-faceted and excessively popular Learning from Dogs blog – for prompting the train of thought that has led to this post. A few days ago, Paul posted an item about a new mining proposal at Pebble Bay in Alaska, which somehow got be thinking about mining in wilderness areas in general; and Antarctica in particular.
This is an important issue to me because, as much as I enjoyed my experience working at the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in Newman WA (1986-89), it left me feeling deeply conflicted about the way we humans are raping and pillaging the planet. However, it was not until last year that I read E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered;(1973) and was literally bowled over by this quote: “we have mistaken nature’s capital for a source of income”.
Former mining consultant, Jared Diamond (i.e. the author of Collapse: How Societies choose to fail or succeed), is similarly conflicted and, although he has done a great deal to encourage mining companies to embrace environmental responsibility, he ultimately concedes that mining companies are not charities and, in many cases began working sites decades ago when legal requirements for site reclamation and/or restoration did not exist. Therefore they did not plan for it; and thus they will often do just about anything to abdicate responsibility for it.
Clearly then, it would be best if all mining were to stop in wilderness areas (especially highly polluting practices such as the cyanide heap leaching process used to extract minute amounts of gold from very poor quality ores. Not only is this highly polluting of the environment, the ore grade is so low that enormous volumes of material have to be dug up to extract enough gold for even one ingot.
Unfortunately, all mining is not going to stop today, tomorrow, or ever. One good thing though, the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) should prevent it being raped for the mineral resources that undoubtedly lie beneath the ice cap. I say“undoubtedly” because Antarctica was once geologically contiguous with Australia, South Africa and South America. Therefore, it will have all the same mineral deposits (see my blog back in October)… For those that are not familiar with it, the ATS was a product of the Cold War and suspended all sovereignty claims to the continent. As such, it’s primary objectives were to keep Antarctica as a demilitarised area and a nuclear-free zone. Then, one-by-one a series of protocols were added to the ATS to protect various species; the environment was very much an after-thought. Then, in 1989, after 18 years of negotiation the Parties to the ATS very nearly ratified the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctica Mineral Resources (CRAMRA) but fortunately did not (because it would not have banned anything): CRAMRA was torn-up and replaced a few years later with the Madrid Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was ratified instead. However, even this only guarantees Antarctica will not be touched for about 35 more years (and it could be torn up at any time if any party chooses to dissent from the moratorium).
Given Hillary Clinton’s willingness to indulge in deeply disingenuous stunts as she did in Greenland last summer; trying to dress-up raping and pillaging the Arctic as conservation (almost as hypocritical as Richard Lindzen – apparently), the time for America to agree not to trash the wilderness in its own backyard is now. Rather than allowing Environmental Protection legislation to be weakened, rolled-back, or repealed; we need to demand that it maintained where it is now strong; strengthened in countries where it is now deficient; and enacted where it is now absent (i.e. in the Arctic). Although I have not done much with it (I have been focussing on this blog), it was thanks to Hillary Clinton’s antics in Greenland – and inspired by Greenpeace – that I set up my Stop Oil Exploration in the Arctic page on Facebook. I also blogged about this back in October too.
So what should be done:
1. All mining in the High Arctic and/or wilderness areas should be banned.
2. The ATS needs to be strengthened to ensure Antarctica is never exploited.
(Well, at least until all the ice is gone and the penguins are dead.)
3. Failing to recycle metals should be made a criminal offence!
I know this sounds extreme – and plays into the hands of those who claim environmentalists just want to oppress people but – what is the alternative? I’ll tell you what the alternative is… we continue to rape the planet; treat the environment with contempt; and pursue perpetual growth as if it is – or ever could be – the answer to all our problems. This is an insane fantasy! Indeed, as I suggested to readers of the Geological Society’s monthly Geoscientist magazine recently – growth is our ultimate problem!
However, for the record, in addition to being a Conservative voter, I am not anti progress (N.B. you may need to read to the end of this linked-artcle (i.e. one of my earliest on here) to see the relevance but I believe it will be worth it – especially if you think you are a “sceptic”!), but I am anti-mining in pristine wilderness and/or in a reckless fashion; unless all necessary safeguards are placed on operators (i.e. Bonds designed to provide funding for clean-up if mining company goes bankrupt). With regard to existing mines, some way must be found to stop companies filing for bankruptcy protection in order to walk away and let the Government pick up the bill (i.e. because the costs were unexpected). For new mines, clean-up costs should be factored-in at the start; if the mine can’t make a profit after allowing for them then it should not be started. It really do think it is as simple as that.