Global warming 'urgent threat,' Hillary Clinton warns

Posted: 10 April 2009

"Global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the first-ever joint session of the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which opened its two-week conference on 6 April.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the joint meeting of the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty countries. (Photo courtesy State Dept.)
In 1959, representatives from 12 countries came together in Washington to sign the Antarctic Treaty, which is sometimes referred to as the first arms control agreement of the Cold War, said Clinton. Today, 47 nations have signed it. "And as a result," she said, "Antarctica is one of the few places on Earth where there has never been war."

Marking the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, Clinton said, "The genius of the Antarctic Treaty lies in its relevance today. It was written to meet the challenges of an earlier time, but it and its related instruments remain a key tool in our efforts to address an urgent threat of this time, climate change, which has already destabilized communities on every continent, endangered plant and animal species, and jeopardized critical food and water sources."

Clinton pointed out that an ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf to the Antarctic continent broke off over the weekend. The 25-mile-long ice bridge connected the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Charcot and Latardy islands.

Wilkins ice shelf
Wilkins ice shelf
In the Antarctic, the Wilkins Ice Shelf splits into fragments. (Photo courtesy British Antarctic Survey)
"With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis," she said.

The Obama administration is committed to working with the countries in both the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty, "advancing toward Copenhagen to take united action on behalf of our response to global climate change."

At the United Nations annual climate change conference in Copenhagen, nations are expected to finalize an agreement to strictly limit the emission of greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. This agreement will take over when the first commitment period of the current Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.

The United States is one of the five Arctic Council countries, together with Norway, Russia, Denmark, and Canada. "We need to increase our attention not only to the Antarctic but to the Arctic as well," said Clinton. "As a senator, I travelled to the Arctic region, both in Norway and Alaska," she said. "I saw for myself the challenging issues that the region is facing today, especially those caused by climate change."

Arctic warming

"The warming of the Arctic has profound implications for global commerce, with the opening of new shipping routes," said Clinton. "It raises the possibility of new energy exploration, which will, of course, have additional impacts on our environment. And Arctic warming has already serious consequences for the indigenous communities that have made their homes there for many generations."

She emphasized that the Obama administration intends to work together with other Arctic countries to manage the use of the changing Arctic.

"Here in Washington," Clinton said, "the State Department coordinates Arctic policy for the United States, and I am committed to maintaining a high level of engagement with our partners on this."

Law of the Sea

"That starts with the Law of the Sea Convention, which President Obama and I are committed to ratifying, to give the United States and our partners the clarity we need to work together smoothly and effectively in the Arctic region," she said.

To protect the environment, Clinton said, "we know that short-lived carbon forcers like methane, black carbon, and tropospheric ozone contributes significantly to the warming of the Arctic. And because they are short lived, they also give us an opportunity to make rapid progress if we work to limit them."

On Friday, President Barack Obama sent to the US Senate the Annex to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty that deals with liability arising from environmental emergencies. The President has urged the Senate to give the Annex its consent so the United States can ratify it, said Clinton.

The Annex sets forth how countries must prevent emergencies and respond to them if they do occur and it will only take effect once all the countries in the Antarctic Treaty approve it.

The United States has also submitted a proposal to the Parties of the Antarctic Treaty to extend marine pollution rules in a manner that more accurately reflects the boundaries of the Antarctic ecosystem, said Clinton.

"Strengthening environmental regulation is especially important as tourism to the Antarctica increases," she said. "The United States is concerned about the safety of the tourists and the suitability of the ships that make the journey south."

The US resolution would place limits on landings from ships carrying large numbers of tourists. It proposes new requirements for lifeboats on tourist ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes.

Declaration

On its first day, the Antarctic Treaty-Arctic Council Joint Meeting approved a Ministerial Declaration on the International Polar Year and Polar Science that recognized that the fourth International Polar Year which ended today "occurred against a backdrop of rapid and significant climate and environmental change in the polar regions."

Arctic icebreaker Healy
Arctic icebreaker Healy
The Arctic icebreaker Healy carries research scientists across the Bering Sea. (Photo courtesy US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center)
Acknowledging the unique scientific importance of the polar regions, both as actors and barometers of these changes, "which are vital to the functioning of the Earth's terrestrial, biological, climate, ocean and atmospheric systems," the declaration calls upon government members of both groups to commit themselves to "using science to help inform the cooperative development of measures to address the threats to the polar regions."

Representing one of the 12 original signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett reiterated his government's commitment to the treaty as the assembled ministers adopted the declaration reflecting on the success of the treaty in reserving Antarctica as a continent for peace and science, where nations cooperate in investigating key scientific questions.

Garrett said, "Since the signing of the treaty 50 years ago, 35 other countries have signed the Antarctic Treaty - a testament to its importance."

©Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.