Our Burning Planet

45TH ANTARCTIC TREATY CONSULTATIVE MEETING

IPCC co-chair lifts the ‘Ice Curtain’ at Antarctic climate meeting in Finland

IPCC co-chair lifts the ‘Ice Curtain’ at Antarctic climate meeting in Finland
French scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a co-chair at the world’s foremost body for climate assessments. (Photo: Flickr)

Blocked media participation during a prominent polar event in Finland at the weekend may have impeded public awareness of landmark discussions among prominent Antarctic researchers and governments. Yet French scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a co-chair at the world’s foremost body for climate assessments, took to Twitter to share her keynote presentation.

Helsinki, Finland — In a pivotal polar gathering hosted in the Finnish capital on Friday, scientists and diplomats from 29 consultative and 27 non-consultative states convened for a full-day climate discussion at an Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting. 

The treaty was signed in 1959 by 12 founding member states, including the US, Russia and South Africa, setting aside Antarctica for “peace” and “science”. Remarkably, despite the Antarctic’s central influence on the global climate, this was the first-ever day completely devoted to a conversation on the climate crisis.  

The day would grapple with the monumental challenges posed by rising temperatures and their devastating impact on Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems. A possible “Helsinki Declaration” affirming a collective climate position among member states would also be considered, some delegates told Daily Maverick at the entrance of the meeting hall. 

And, with just days remaining until the overall two-week meeting’s conclusion on Thursday, 8 June, the urgency of this gathering could not be overstated — the fate of Antarctica’s wild frontiers hangs precariously in the balance as the south pole heats up. Decisions made here in Helsinki have the potential to reverberate across continents. 

But, even though it is understood that Finland had attempted to broker access for news journalists, some member states had refused the host government’s request — which had also been put forward by the Finnish Embassy of South Africa.

Similar concerns about public access were highlighted by the French scientist Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a working group co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who delivered an Antarctic-themed presentation next to the Port of Helsinki on the day. 

“For transparency”, Masson-Delmotte shared the same presentation on Twitter, piercing — if only briefly — the secrecy that usually shrouds the proceedings of the annual closed-door consultative meetings. 

“I shared the main findings from the recent IPCC reports, all available online and with summaries being approved by delegates from all governments, which provide a robust assessment of the state of scientific knowledge relevant to inform decision-making, in a neutral, non-prescriptive way, and with an emphasis on Antarctica,” Masson-Delmotte, who co-chairs the IPCC’s physical sciences working group, told Daily Maverick afterwards by email.  

“I initially thought that the first climate day would be public, and understand that some parties — I do not know who — opposed this initial proposal from Finland.”

‘What I do is based on publication information’

“But I am a scientist and what I do as a scientist and as an IPCC working group one co-chair, until next July, is based on public information,” said Masson-Delmotte, a palaeoclimate specialist. “This climate day is also an opportunity to enhance public literacy on climate change and Antarctica, as it has global relevance, in particular related to unique biodiversity, deep ocean circulation and implications for marine life and, of course, sea-level rise.”

Masson-Delmotte added that similar to what she had done at other closed events, such as a climate briefing for the French government last year, “I decided to release my slides and a summary of my presentation online, through social networks … I also informed the delegates of this choice of transparency during a long Q&A session after my presentation.”

She stressed that IPCC plenary sessions were also closed, “but there are external observers who provide detailed reports”. 

“It would be great if a similar approach could be implemented for the Antarctic Treaty consultative meeting,” she suggested. 

Such consultative meetings produce fiendishly long and dry reports — the first volume of the 2022 Berlin report alone clocked in at about 90,000 words. They also take months to reach the public and, when they do, it is an open secret that some states often insist on redacting potentially controversial information, as the Tasmania-based polar author and journalist Andrew Darby has noted. To describe the Antarctic Treaty’s secrecy problems, Darby has coined the term “Ice Curtain”.

According to Masson-Delmotte’s 43 Twitter slides, her presentation built upon the IPCC Sixth Assessment reports, which were “among the most reviewed scientific assessments”. They had been endorsed by governments around the world. 

IPCC assessments were increasingly placing a greater emphasis on Antarctica, Masson-Delmotte explained — specifically via topics such as ice sheets, rising global sea levels, ocean currents and the distinctive ecosystems and biodiversity found there. The reports showcased both scientific progress and areas where more knowledge was needed, she said.

Masson-Delmotte’s presentation also considered humanity’s present crossroads — equally “in terms of human influence on climate; observed changes at the global scale; and in the Antarctic region”. 

While climate action was gaining momentum, it was “not sufficient” to avoid the escalation of risks, she said. 

The amount of heat-trapping gases being released into the atmosphere worldwide kept rising, and some countries or periods of time contributed more than others. Antarctic tourism, which reportedly surpassed 100,000 heads for the first time in the 2022/23 season, was associated with “very high carbon footprints”, she warned. 

Antarctic ice core records revealed there had been sudden and extraordinary rises in greenhouse gases caused by human activities, she noted. The Southern Ocean — which surrounded the Antarctic continent and connected all major world oceans — played a vital role in absorbing CO2, which also affected CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

‘We can’t go back’

Masson-Delmotte explained that the release of greenhouse gases disrupted the balance of the Earth’s energy and caused the climate system to heat up, resulting in the loss of ice. She further noted that warming oceans were a long-lasting effect that could not be reversed for several centuries — with most of the heat amassing in the Southern Ocean.

“We can’t go back,” she noted.

There was zero doubt that human activities had caused global warming, she continued. 

In the past 10 years, the Earth had been getting warmer because of mainly two aspects. Firstly, she noted, there were more greenhouse gases in the air, which trapped heat and made the planet hotter. Secondly, air pollution that used to cool the Earth had now decreased.

Widespread, rapid and intensifying changes were observed in each component of the climate system. In the case of sea-level rise, this was “unprecedented in thousands of years”. In the case of atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidification, it was unprecedented in millions of years. These changes were “increasingly attributed to human influence”. 

Surface warming was particularly strong in the Arctic and Antarctic Peninsula. 

Climate change created more extreme hot weather that happened more often and became even more intense, which ranged from droughts that affected agriculture to heatwaves in the Southern Ocean.

Scientists had made progress in understanding Antarctic changes, Masson-Delmotte stressed. They had noticed, for instance, that the temperature and the amount of sea ice in the Antarctic region were greatly influenced by the way air moved around in the atmosphere.

Climate warming was causing sea levels to rise — a direct result of oceans getting warmer, as well as melting ice on land, like in Greenland in the north and Antarctica in the south. Ice melt had ramped up fourfold since the 1990s, and this was making sea levels go higher than before.

Climate change was causing big problems all around the world. It was hurting ecosystems and the things they can do for us humans, like providing clean air and water, she said. This was leading to a lot of damage and loss — including animals and plants. 

And the polar regions were getting smaller because of these changes.

“The extent to which current and future generations would experience a hotter and different world depended on choices in the immediate present and in the near term,” she said. “The intermediate scenario was closest to the emissions implied by current implemented policies.” 

Masson-Delmotte’s presentation also explored “possible futures”.

As the Earth was getting warmer, we were seeing bigger changes in different parts of the world. In places like Antarctica, the effects were delayed by the Southern Ocean absorbing heat.

But big impacts awaited Antarctica’s unique plants and animals. 

“What happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica,” Masson-Delmotte added, quoting what has become an oft-repeated rallying cry these days. This meant that what happened there affected other parts of the world, too.

It was also important for us to learn more about the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet, she continued. About 1 billion people were at risk because of rising sea levels, and we also needed to understand how to keep them safe.

Sea levels would keep rising for thousands of years — speed and height depended on human choices. 

If the temperature rose by 2°C and stayed that way, we could expect sea levels to rise by at least 2m or even more over time. And over a longer time, say 2000 years, sea levels could rise as much as 6m or more. 

Scientists had learnt a lot from studying the Earth’s warm geological past to make these predictions, the palaeoclimatologist said.

‘Small window of opportunity’

If we kept doing what we were doing now, the Earth’s temperature could go up by more than 2°C by the 2050s and close to 3°C by 2100. If we worked harder and smarter to slash pollution, we could prevent this. For an insight into how bad things could get, Masson-Delmotte travelled back virtually by 3 million years — thus, the last time warming was greater than 2.5°C — but only “with much less ice in Antarctica”.

Finally, Masson-Delmotte asked how the world could accelerate climate action. 

If, in the runup to 2030, we continued releasing greenhouse gases like we had in 2019, we would use up all allowed carbon emissions to keep the temperature from rising too much — in other words, we would squander our chances of limiting warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. We also needed to invest more money into what we knew worked — clean energy — which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half by the end of this decade.

The co-chair for the IPCC’s physical sciences working group remained optimistic — but only just.

“With rapid action, it is still possible to build a liveable and sustainable future through climate resilient development,” she said. This was “a small window of opportunity, with major implications for threats on planetary health and human well-being”.

Masson-Delmotte said solutions did not exclude the way humans moved around and lived in Antarctica, nor opportunities for reducing emissions here, she said.

Polar scientists needed “help to reduce the carbon footprint of research activities, a matter of science ethics”. 

It is no small irony, then, that Russia has been looking for oil and gas in the warming Southern Ocean almost every year since Antarctica’s Madrid Protocol entered into force in 1998. As we have reported, mining activities are banned here, but science is not — and the latter is precisely what Russia has repeatedly told Daily Maverick it is doing there, despite state sources suggesting otherwise. The treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection has not responded to our multiple sets of questions since 2021.

“About 10% of people are contributing to around 40% of global emissions, while half of the world’s population, often in highly vulnerable contexts, only accounts for 15% of current emissions,” she additionally told Daily Maverick.

She reserved a final thought for the controversial rise of uncapped tourists pouring into Antarctica.

“The carbon footprint of Antarctic tourism also needs to be considered” in the lens of “equity and responsibility”, she told us.

In her Helsinki presentation, Masson-Delmotte underlined the need for stronger net-zero standards for non-state actors, such as businesses, investors and cities, which could also be applied to “Antarctic activities”.  

“In Antarctica, as well as globally,” said Masson-Delmotte, “our choices will reverberate for hundreds, even thousands of years”. DM

Valérie Masson-Delmotte’s full presentation can be downloaded here. Be sure to click the top-right download button. 

 

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.

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