International Legal Implications of Climate Change for the Polar Regions: Too Much, Too Little, Too Late?

Article excerpt

Climate change is by definition both a global and a regional issue. Perhaps this paradox is most evident in the polar regions where regional change and global impact coexist. This commentary does not deny the importance of the global regime, but opts instead to consider the role of those institutions which can most affect the particularities of the polar context, namely the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. So far, discussion within these institutions has focused on the science of climate change, and it is certainly the case that research done within both regions has made important contributions to regional and global knowledge. The development of regional policy and regulatory responses to climate change has, however, been fairly minimal to date. Nevertheless, the original perception that climate change is not an issue which can be addressed regionally is slowly beginning to change. There are (at least) three areas where action can and should be undertaken by polar states: mitigating and minimising local greenhouse gas emissions; developing appropriate regional adaptation strategies; and representing the interests of these regions within appropriate international fora. We argue that regional regimes cannot abrogate complete responsibility when it comes to climate change. Despite recent scientific and policy initiatives, climate change is under-regulated in the polar regions. Thus, there is too much rhetoric and too little regulation. Unfortunately, before we get a chance to resolve this conundrum, the global reality may overtake the normative endeavour; in other words, it may also be too late.


I   Introduction
II  Climate Change and the Polar Regions
III International Climate Change Law and Politics
IV  The Polar Regions: Responding to Climate Change
      A Responding to Climate Change: The Arctic Council
      B Responding to Climate Change: The Antarctic Treaty
V   The Polar Regions: Adapting to Climate Change
VI  The Polar Regions and Climate Change--The Way Forward
VII Postscript: Regime Integrity


Climate change arguably represents the greatest threat to the environmental, political and legal stability of the polar regions. Long-regarded as a repository of valuable scientific information on climates past, (1) both the Arctic and the Antarctic now represent a barometer for future global climate change. The polar regions are warming more rapidly than the global average and the impact of increasing temperatures on sea ice, glaciers and polar wildlife is already significant. Moreover, it is within the context of the polar regions that the effects of climate change on territorial, resource and institutional security have, so far, been most notable. (2) Predicted reductions in, or even ultimate absence of, Arctic sea ice raises the prospect of year-round commercial shipping through the North-West Passage and the Northern Sea Route, which may lead to an increase in the already considerable tension between coastal states--Canada and Russia--and third states, such as the United States, over the status of these waters. Anticipating the possibility (but by no means inevitability) of a more benign polar climate, the attention of politicians and commentators has, in recent years, turned to the (largely mineral) resources located within both the Arctic and the Antarctic. (3) A plethora of recent controversial submissions to the Continental Shelf Commission ('CSC') (4) related to both the Arctic (5) and the Antarctic, (6) combined with increasingly confrontational political rhetoric, particularly between Arctic states, (7) has led some commentators to suggest that the opportunities and challenges resulting from climate change will lead to conflict within the polar regions. (8) However, despite the likely significant environmental impacts of climate change, and the potential indirect consequences on political stability within the polar regions, the legal and policy responses of the relevant regional institutions to climate change have been limited to date. …