45TH ANTARCTIC TREATY CONSULTATIVE MEETING
No More Mister Ice Guys: Russia, SA fail to take a climate stand at top Antarctic meeting in Finland
On Tuesday, diplomats from tens of states rose to their feet after a stirring speech by an indigenous Amazon youth campaigner at the opening session of the 45th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Helsinki, Finland. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with their Russian counterparts, South Africa’s treaty officials remained frozen to their seats.
Helsinki, Finland — The day after South Africa granted Russian President Vladimir Putin diplomatic immunity for the BRICS summit in Cape Town this week, South African officials here in the Finnish capital were again clapping out of sync with most of the international community. While the lion’s share of delegates from 29 consultative states leapt to a standing ovation after a passionate speech by a young climate activist, South Africa’s Antarctic Treaty officials, seated alongside their Russian counterparts, appeared unmoved.
The dire state of Antarctica — the control room of the world’s climate engine — has been consistently highlighted by the best-available scientific research, which would also be presented at the meeting of south polar states until Thursday, 8 June.
If global warming continues at its current pace, up to 97% of land-based Antarctic species could decline within this century unless “greater conservation efforts” are applied. Under a similar scenario, an estimated “collapse” of currents is expected to slow Antarctic overturning circulation by more than 40% within the next 30 years. This would result in a stagnation at the bottom of the world oceans and have significant, long-lasting effects on marine ecosystems for centuries to come. Professor Matthew England of the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science, which co-authored that landmark study, told Daily Maverick this week that these projections were “likely conservative”. As the Helsinki event kicked off, new — and more concerning — research in this field has emerged.
Against this backdrop, 21-year-old Finnish-Ecuadorian activist Helena Gualinga addressed the gathering, describing her fears of climate-caused irreversible damage. Raised in polar state Finland and the Amazon rainforest, she shared the struggles of her community in protecting their homeland against extractive industries. She also expressed concern about climate change in Finland, where devastating floods had become increasingly common.
Gualinga also called attention to the fact that she was the only young person at the invitation-only 400-person assembly. It was their actions that would be deeply felt by her generation. But also present were 27 observer states lacking any decision-making powers.
The annual meeting, this year hosted by Finland for the first time, aims to drive critical progress on the climate crisis at the bottom of the world, its impact on Antarctic ice melt, maritime safety and the management of ever-booming tourists.
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty and its instruments devote the region below 60°S to peaceful activities, particularly science, conservation and tourism. Yet, the 2022/23 tourist season lured more than 100,000 visitors. And there appears no limit in sight.
Don’t rock the icebreaker
Gualinga’s speech received an instant, thunderous standing ovation from most delegates of the nearly 30 consultative states. But representatives from Russia and South Africa — each a treaty founding state and consultative party — sat largely motionless. Coincidentally, due to alphabetical seating arrangements, they found themselves side by side.
Amid the applause, the Chinese delegation maintained stoic expressions as the sole country to block Antarctic penguin protections at the Germany-hosted 2022 Berlin meeting — based on polar bear “science” and other non-sequiturs. Among the South Africans, only two out of four appeared to join the applause. Even so, they refrained from fully immersing themselves in the collective spirit of the room. South Africa’s newest Antarctic strategy prioritises a “climate action” response, but these officials’ behaviour reflected the treaty’s prevailing ‘don’t rock the icebreaker’ culture, where every action carries potential political significance.
South Africa’s national environmental affairs department, tasked with overseeing Antarctic affairs, did not respond to questions by the deadline.
As can be seen in this video, both South African and Russian officials, seated left to right, opted out of the applause. (Video: Tiara Walters)
Russia’s “illegal invasion” of fellow consultative party Ukraine, which caused significant damage to Kyiv’s polar office in October 2022, had already elicited strong condemnation. During the opening speeches, Finland — an Antarctic consultative state and Nato’s newest member — echoed Berlin’s 2022 position. There, several consultative states had walked out during a Russian address refusing to acknowledge the invasion as unprovoked and unjustified — but not BRICS allies South Africa and China. On Tuesday, Russia once again asked for the floor and reportedly presented a similar argument.
Daily Maverick seemed to be the only news organisation in the meeting hall situated at the Port of Helsinki, enveloped by a chill in the air even as Finland approaches mid-summer. Following the 25-minute opening ceremony, we were instructed to exit the room and unable to witness the Russian delegate’s speech.
South Africa, doggedly pushing ahead with its controversial “non-aligned” policy on the invasion, has also provided refuge to Ukraine’s polar vessel — the Noosfera — since the start of the war. But accusations by the United States embassy that South Africa had supplied arms to Russia via a sanctioned cargo vessel, the Lady R, have now further clouded its so-called neutrality, forcing President Cyril Ramaphosa to institute an enquiry.
Furthermore, the Port of Cape Town has provided a launchpad to the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, Rosgeo, to search for Southern Ocean oil and gas ever since Antarctica’s Madrid Protocol mining ban entered into force in 1998. This prohibits mining activities, but not scientific research — a concept that was never legally defined by the drafters, arguably because this activity, in its classic sense, is obvious.
The St Petersburg-based vessel employed for these oil and gas operations uses seismic airguns, causing potentially serious harm to marine life.
The protocol signed by South Africa, Russia and about 40 other states prohibits mining in Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean until at least 2048, when a review may be triggered that could expose the climate-threatened wilderness to extraction.
More heat for South Africa’s environment minister
In 2021, Pretoria gazetted a memorandum of understanding with Moscow, further cementing polar co-operation for logistical support. Indeed, Cape Town is among just five global gateway ports relied on by treaty states for routine scientific and resupply logistics en route to Antarctica.
But Russia’s extensive oil and gas activities were exposed by Daily Maverick more than a year and a half ago — and Antarctic states have yet to acknowledge them publicly, despite multiple requests for comment sent to treaty authorities.
While in Helsinki, Daily Maverick has again tried to reach South African officials about — among others — Creecy’s recent parliamentary assurance that her department was working on efforts to “strengthen” Antarctica’s mining ban.
In a puzzling reply on Tuesday, however, Creecy’s spokesperson, Peter Mbelengwa, sent us a one-line instruction to put our questions to South Africa’s Department of Mineral Resources and Energy instead.
When asked to clarify if the mining department was now involved in Antarctic politics, and if he wished to retract his suggestion, Mbelengwa responded that he would ask “the line function to advise”.
There is not even a remote indication that South Africa’s mining department has had any involvement with Antarctic activities since the ban entered into force 25 years ago. So Mbelengwa’s response was nothing if not awkward, particularly as the country he represents is Africa’s sole representative at the consultative table.
If anything, it was, instead, almost certainly an indication of South Africa’s habitually evasive responses to our questions on Russia’s Cape Town activities en route to Antarctica, which hit record ice lows during the most recent austral summer.
Meanwhile, since 2023, the Democratic Alliance has consistently demanded transparency from the “ANC government” about Russian involvement in Antarctica. Opposition member Dave Bryant criticised Creecy’s May 2023 Budget speech, suggesting that alleged Russian fossil fuel exploration in Antarctica violated international law. In February, Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis — also a member of the opposition — denounced the docking of Russian vessels as a “shameful moral disgrace” during the city’s relaunch as an Antarctic gateway.
On Wednesday, Bryant confirmed to Daily Maverick that he had “posed follow-up questions to the Minister [Creecy], which I hope to receive this week”.
It may be science, but is it ethical?
Rosgeo, the Kremlin’s mineral explorer, has on a number of occasions told Daily Maverick its oil and gas research conducted under the flag of the Russian Antarctic Expedition is purely “scientific”. While suggesting revisions, Russia has also repeatedly reaffirmed treaty commitments and climate declarations.
But its annual search for oil and gas in a wilderness burning up as a result of fossil fuels raises ethical questions of a governance framework charged with the environmental protection of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean’s failing immunity.
And this, folks, is the last you’ll hear of an intergovernmental meeting that governs an entire continent, until it ends next week. Every year this closed meeting becomes more bizarre, more dangerous for good governance. #IceCurtain https://t.co/eCCwIaJ9GV
— Andrew Darby (@looksouth) May 30, 2023
And, contrary to some suggestions, Antarctica is not a geopolitical paradise.
Finland’s foreign affairs ministry last week acknowledged increasing geopolitical interest in Antarctica. Additionally, a government official, adhering to the closed-door policy of the Helsinki meeting, informed us the situation in Antarctica was “sensitive” and that Finland had not actively promoted press participation this year. Also constrained by treaty obligations, the Nordic country is ranked fifth in the World Press Freedom Index — nonetheless, this was an assessment recently criticised in local media.
Media ‘failing’ to inform the public
For her part, climate activist Helena Gualinga told us news organisations were also “failing” young people.
“It’s really hard for the broader public to know these meetings are even going on,” Gualinga observed. “Media are failing to inform the broader public … It is excluding people and it is stripping them from their right to actually be engaged in these processes.”
Ahead of the current meeting, Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cape Town also told Daily Maverick they were “concerned that very little of what takes place in the Antarctic Treaty System meetings is conveyed to the public … Media are not allowed into meetings and no hard questions are asked”.
But XR Cape Town spokesperson Jacqui Tooke said she recognised the need for cautious action, and that it was better to reform the treaty system than singling out Russia as “the bad guy”.
Treaty states had to “insist” on Russian compliance, Tooke said. She also cited a letter of demand signed by 29 South African groups including her own, whose January protests against the Russian “prospecting” ship’s movements via Cape Town and into the Southern Ocean made headlines around the world. This letter included a call for a “forever”, unmodifiable ban on Antarctic oil and gas mining, which echoed a paper submitted to delegates at last year’s meeting and other recent academic efforts.
Decades since the world first learnt about human-induced rising temperatures, the Helsinki meeting is leading the first-ever full-day session on climate change, scheduled for Friday, 2 June. Corridor talk is circulating that news media may be granted access to the discussions. A senior scientist, who had a low expectation of sensitivity surrounding the day, said reporters should be allowed entry.
For media access to be given to Friday’s historic session, all 29 consultative states — including China, Russia and South Africa — would have to, well, not disagree. DM
Tiara Walters is a full-time reporter for Daily Maverick’s Our Burning Planet unit. Walters’s travel to Helsinki has been made possible, in part, by the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Finnish Embassy of South Africa.
To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.