Science Diplomacy and Environmental Peacebuilding in the Polar Regions: Conservation, Resource Management, Geopolitics and Diplomacy

*Carla Isobel Elliff, Rashmi Ramesh, Sunitha Anup and Dhanasree Jayaram

The polar regions of our planet, the Arctic to the north and the Antarctic to the south, are among the world’s most environmentally vulnerable regions. However, the numerous geopolitical and geoeconomic contestations embedded in these regions pose critical obstacles to science diplomacy and environmental peacebuilding. To discuss these issues and how they interconnect with marine conservation, the second session of the webinar series on science diplomacy and environmental peacebuilding brought together Dr. Klaus Dodds, Professor of Geopolitics, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom, and Dr. Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies, University of Colorado Boulder, United States, to discuss their research on polar regions. The session was moderated by Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram, Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India.

In his initial remarks, Dr. Dodds elaborated on how science diplomacy and geopolitics are interrelated, and that governments indeed recognized science diplomacy as a part and parcel of the prevailing geopolitics, despite the fact that there has been a tendency to disassociate science diplomacy from geopolitics and integrate it with the elements of soft power, mainly due to the controversial nature of the former. This may put many actors involved in science diplomacy in a rather questionable position, particularly scientists, who may not think of themselves as geopolitical actors. As an example, Dr. Dodds highlighted the presence of the United Kingdom (UK) science and technology initiatives in 47 countries based on fundamental geographies. One of the countries is Russia, with which the UK is very keen to use science diplomacy to foster better relations, especially since the UK and Russia have had a geopolitically discordant past.  

Regarding the polar regions, Dr. Dodds pointed out that geopolitics has been integral to the making of polar regions, not only as an object of governance, but also to the making of ‘polar geopolitics’. There has been a history of over 150 years of international collaboration that has very much shaped the Arctic and the Antarctic. Over this period, there have been four International Polar Years, each reflecting important geopolitical and scientific interests of their time. The first was between 1882 and 1883, with 12 nations involved in the Arctic in areas of common interest; while the latest during 2007-2009 that involved 63 nations also witnessed engagement with the indigenous and Northern communities, which makes it distinct. Dr. Dodds specifically focused upon the International Geophysical Year (1957–58), also at times considered the third international polar year, which was perhaps the most important one for these regions. This initiative saw 67 countries coming together in a truly global collaboration, of which 12 in particular were involved in the Antarctic, also ushering in an era of permanent human occupation. 

On the issue of infrastructure in the polar regions, a question from the audience arose as to why the same countries have multiple research stations in Antarctica. Dr. Brooks explained that in addition to the political importance of research stations as a means of occupying space on the continent, multiple science bases have the advantage of working on different scientific requirements. As an example of science diplomacy, these multiple research stations are also visited by scientists of myriad nationalities. In fact, Dr. Dodds went on to discuss how the Antarctic Treaty could only flourish with science diplomacy. This treaty was signed by those same 12 countries involved in the International Geophysical Year and entered into force in 1961. Today there are 53 signatory countries agreeing to the treaty’s terms for peace and science, and denying claims to sovereignty in Antarctica. The treaty promotes the freedom of science, prohibits military and nuclear activities (largest nuclear free zone in the world), suspends sovereignty and bans mining in the region. 

The Arctic and Antarctic have seen a history of collaboration between various countries to deliberate upon common areas of concern. Over the years, the focus seemed to be on the Antarctic rather than the Arctic due to the Cold War geopolitics. Despite the tensions between superpowers, scientific collaboration in the Antarctic prevailed and resulted in the Antarctic Treaty, which dedicated the entire continent for peace and scientific exploration. Such a legal framework is absent in the Arctic, but the recent Central Arctic Ocean Agreement, 2018 could be perceived as a science diplomacy initiative. Science, law and geopolitics have made the agreement possible. The Central Arctic Ocean is defined in terms of law and geography as an area lying beyond the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of the coastal states. A notable element of the agreement is the mention of local knowledge of the indigenous communities in the region. The extent of their role and participation in decision-making is however, debatable. 

However, while in the 1950s the Antarctic could be considered a territory of and for science, Dr. Dodds pointed out that we needed to recognize that current activities such as resource exploitation, tourism, biological prospecting, and others, have all complicated what science diplomacy can and cannot do. His view on how science diplomacy is really a complex matter and not the silver bullet some envision, particularly in our current post-truth/fake-news global scenario where science is constantly challenged, provided a critical perspective to the discussion. 

Dr. Brooks threw light on her experience in the establishment of the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA): the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area in Antarctica. Despite being the coldest, windiest and driest continent in the world, with waters below the freezing point, the Antarctic is rich with marine life; so much so that over the years it has become an important fishing ground (particularly for the exploitation of krill and toothfish) to many nations, despite its remoteness. The Antarctic has the world’s 90 percent freshwater, and it is known not only for driving the global ocean circulation and regulating the global climate, but also for the abundance of resources. In fact, both the polar regions possess some of the healthiest marine systems and even undiscovered species of marine life. Pressure on these marine systems is being exacerbated by rapid environmental change too. 

The Antarctic, as Dr. Brooks asserted, “is a de facto World Park, one of humanity’s marvelous achievements.” Dr. Brooks spoke about the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that takes a consensus-based, precautionary, science-based, ecosystem approach to marine resource management. The CCAMLR is the ocean arm of the Antarctic treaty system, governing the waters surrounding Antarctica. The CCAMLR has been in place since 1980 and it has 25 members. Therefore, a combination of this approach, the importance of fisheries in the Antarctic, and the increasing necessity to conserve biodiversity for ecosystem functioning has resulted in the need for extensive international collaboration. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), popular tools to conserve biodiversity and/or to promote sustainable fisheries among others, have been discussed under the CCAMLR as a part of its legal mandate. In fact, the popularity of MPAs have led to about 7.5 percent of our oceans being protected currently. 

The Ross Sea, from very early on, emerged as a priority area for protection, as it is considered one of the most pristine (least damaged) marine ecosystems of the world and is also the most productive stretch of the Southern Ocean, manifested in the form of a disproportionate amount of marine life in the area, driven primarily by phytoplankton bloom. It is also considered a living laboratory (particularly for scientists) due to its healthy marine ecosystems and the best studied Antarctic continental shelf systems. 

As explained by Dr. Brooks, CCAMLR works on consensus and the member states meet only once a year, that gives them only one opportunity annually to reach policy decisions. This also means that all 25 member states must unanimously agree on decisions, such as the creation of MPAs. Apart from the trade-offs between what you set aside for protection and for resource use, there have been several geopolitical roadblocks (which have nothing to do with fishing at all) along the way. The consensus on Antarctic MPAs is a result of prolonged discussion since the 1990s. It took a long time to get all countries on board. The area originally proposed for the Ross Sea MPA was reduced by almost 40 percent in 2013 to accommodate fishing interests and gain more support. 

The intersection between geopolitics and marine conservation can be best seen in the way a country such as Ukraine voted on the issue of Ross Sea MPA – up until 2013, it always voted in unison with Russia, but in 2014, it adopted an independent positon on the issue. However, it is important to point out that not only fisheries are a source of contention; sovereignty claims over Antarctica since the 1950s and unequal economic trade-offs have also played a crucial role in defining the area of the Ross Sea MPA. External issues such as the geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia over Crimea (2014) also came in the way of adoption of the Ross Sea MPA, giving the entire negotiations a “cold war feel”, as observed by Dr. Brooks. 

To surpass these and other obstacles, Dr. Brooks recalled how her colleague Dr. David Ainley led a flood of scientific efforts, with over 10 years of scientific initiatives, raising the relevance of the Ross Sea in support of why it should be adopted as MPA. This included a scientists’ consensus statement with more than 500 signatures, collaboration with the media to produce numerous news articles, a documentary, public protests, and so on. In 2015, there were still two countries left to approve the decision: Russia and China. 

With all the public outreach initiatives Dr. Brooks described, the former State Secretary of the US, John Kerry became involved in the high-level negotiations in a much greater way, primarily because he wanted to see the Ross Sea MPA as a part of his legacy. He managed to bring China on board in 2015, thus isolating Russia, which also decided to follow suit in 2016. On October 28, 2016, Ross Sea MPA was adopted as world’s largest MPA, covering an area of 1.55 million square kilometres with 70 percent of it being strictly ‘no-take’, and it came into force on December 1, 2017. As remarked by Dr. Brooks, “It was not only an environmental win for Antarctica and the whole world, but also a diplomatic win. It felt like a peace agreement, especially in the context of heightened geopolitical tensions between the US and Russia. It made me realise that we still do have exceptional governance despite tensions and contested resource frontiers.”

During the Q&A session, Dr. Brooks also touched upon the status of the Antarctic Treaty, which is in place indefinitely. It can come up for review and when it does, all the countries have the opportunity to think about its status based on unanimous agreement (consensus). However, according to her, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the countries would want the agreements that ban various activities such as mining or the Antarctic Treaty to disappear, even if one thinks from the perspective of countries that have historical claims in the region. It is important to emphasise that if these agreements go away, it opens up to everybody. Moreover, it does not make economic sense to mine in the Antarctic due to the lack of infrastructure and cost-effective mining options. At the same time, in light of the absence of regulations for bioprospecting and tourism, and compromises over fishing regulations, the question of whether this treaty would continue to be effective should be pondered upon more seriously.  

Both Dr. Dodds and Dr. Brooks demonstrated through their professional and research experiences that the polar regions of our planet are indeed the source of much discussion in the fields of science diplomacy and environmental peacebuilding. Besides the above-discussed points, during the Q&A, issues pertaining to geoengineering and reformation of the Arctic Council in the context of the growing presence of extra-regional countries such as China in the region were also brought up by the audience. The webinar reinforces the fact that science, despite being a double-edged sword, does have a crucial role in the process of marine conservation and resource management in the polar regions. In this webinar the interconnectedness between science-driven marine conservation, geopolitical/geoeconomic realities, environmental and other forms of diplomacy pertaining to polar regions, and global governance in general (including resource management) were brought out succinctly.  

The full recording of this webinar can be accessed at

More on Antarctic Geopolitics and the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area by the two speakers (E-International Relations):

Further details of the webinar series and the first webinar's report can be found at 

The webinar series has been made possible with support from the following networks and institutions:
  •      Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education
  •      Environmental Peacebuilding Association
  •      Earth System Governance Project
  •      Early Career Researchers Network of Networks and Future Earth
  •      Young Ecosystem Services Specialists
  •      Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers
  •      International Consortium of Research Staff Associations
  •      Responsible Research and Innovation Networking Globally
*This report has been prepared by Carla Isobel Elliff of Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, representing the Young Ecosystem Services Specialists (YESS) network; Rashmi Ramesh of Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE); and Sunitha Anup of Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, New Delhi, representing the Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers (NESSE). 


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