Conservationists have been celebrating the creation of the world’s largest marine park, covering 1.55 million square kilometres of the Ross Sea off Antarctica.
The agreement, brokered at last week’s annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, will enter into force on December 1, 2017 – thanks in large part to China ending its resistance to the proposal.
For the next 35 years, fishing will be totally banned in a “no-take zone” covering 1.12 million square kilometres (72%) of the marine park, with exceptions for krill and toothfish in specially designated research zones.
The marine park’s creation follows years of often frustrating negotiations. The United States and New Zealand brought the idea to the 2012 CCAMLR meeting, but were met with concerns, particularly from Russia and China.
At the 2014 meeting, China set out the reasons for its opposition. Its delegates argued that the term “conservation” should balance protection and rational use of marine living resources; that marine parks should not be set up in the Southern Ocean without convincing data showing they will work; and that the CCAMLR has already adopted a wide range of successful conservation measures in the seas around Antarctica.
A year later, China once again looked set to block the issue, posing a series of questions about the proposed marine park. How could marine parks allow rational use of marine living resources? How could they facilitate scientific research? How would they be monitored and regulated, and how long would the protections last?
Nevertheless, China surprisingly supported the Ross Sea proposal at the end of the 2015 CCAMLR meeting, paving the way for this month’s decision.
Why the turnaround from China’s previous opposition? And what does this mean for its growing and changing influence on Antarctic diplomacy?
There are three key reasons that explain China’s shifting position. First, China is a latecomer to the current global ocean governance regime. When the Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959, China was still relatively isolated from the international community. It was not until 1978 that it opened its doors to the world and engaged with the current international legal system, and as such it had little influence on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It has taken time for China to develop the necessary diplomatic and scientific expertise to become comfortable in this space. As a historic rule-taker rather than rule-maker, its government may need to overcome a natural mistrust of many existing regimes.
This issue is not unique to marine parks. Such hesitation was also evident when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 and when it started engaging with UN climate change negotiations in 1994. But China now uses the WTO dispute settlement body as frequently as other members, and ratified the Paris climate agreement at September’s G20 summit which it hosted for the first time – another sign of its increasing diplomatic engagement.
Second, China became a party of the CCAMLR in 2007. As the world’s second-largest economy and largest fishing nation, China has global fishing interests, including off Antarctica. Chinese Krill fishing in Antarctica has grown significantly since 2009, reaching 54,300 tonnes in 2014. This partly explains China’s concerns over proposed no-take zones.
There is, however, a deeper philosophical concern, which might be described as “anxiousness for commons”. While China’s Antarctic fishing interests account for only a very small share of its global catch, they are highly symbolic because Antarctic fishing showcases China’s quest for freedom in the “global commons”.
Third, the international community is currently developing a new global ocean governance regime. By coincidence, negotiations on the regulation of fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean and other international areas of the high seas have been going on at the same time as the discussions about the Ross Sea. In the Northeast Atlantic, the OSPAR has already established a network of high sea marine parks.
As a rising power, China would not be happy to face constraints or bans on its activities at a time when its rising status gives it access to places like the high seas, the ocean floor, the poles, and outer space. It would be a shame if China were to remain silent on those issues, and it probably won’t – China’s 13th Five Year Plan (2016-20) clearly says the nation would like to take a more active role in global ocean governance.
In the foreseeable future, we could possibly see China become more comfortable and active within the CCAMLR as well as the Antarctic Treaty System. Although generally being supportive, China would not keep silent. Rather, it would speak up more openly for its Antarctic interests, and have more intensive engagement with the Antarctic Treaty System.
One challenge for China would be how to enhance its capacity and expertise so as to provide high-quality proposals, which could not only pursue its own interests, but as an important global player, also help to make a concrete contribution to achieving sustainability in the Southern Ocean.
These days, after an extreme weather event like a cyclone, bushfire, or major storm, it’s common to find people asking: was it climate change?
We also often hear people saying it is impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change, as former prime minister Tony Abbott and the then environment minister Greg Hunt said after the bushfires in New South Wales in 2013.
While this may have been true in the 1990s, the science of attributing individual extreme events to global warming has advanced significantly since then. It is now possible to link aspects of extreme events to climate change.
However, as I describe in an article co-written by Susan Hassol, Simon Torok and Patrick Luganda and published today in the World Meteorologcal Organization’s Bulletin, how we communicate these findings has not kept pace with the rapidly evolving science. As a result, there is widespread confusion about the links between climate change and extreme weather.
The science of attributing individual extreme weather events to climate change dates back to 2003, when a discussion article in Nature raised the question of liability for damages from extreme events. The idea was that if you could attribute a specific event to rising greenhouse gas emissions, you could potentially hold someone to account.
This was soon followed by a 2004 study of the 2003 European heatwave, which caused more than 35,000 deaths. This analysis found that climate change had more than doubled the risk of such extreme heat.
These early studies laid the foundations for using climate models to analyse the links between specific extreme weather events and human-induced climate change. Many studies since then have focused on putting numbers to the risks and likelihoods of various extremes.
Attribution science has now evolved to the point where it is possible to analyse extreme events almost as they happen. The World Weather Attribution project is an example of an international effort to sharpen and accelerate our ability to analyse and communicate the influence of climate change on extreme weather events.
This project examined the major flooding in France and nearby countries in 2016. The floods – which forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes and caused damage estimated at more than a billion euros in France alone – were made about 80% more likely by climate change.
Lost in translation
The communication of this science outside the research community has, with a few notable exceptions, not fully reflected these scientific advances. This confusion about the state of the science comes from many sources.
The media, politicians and some scientists outside this area of research still often claim that we can’t attribute any individual event to climate change. In some countries – including Australia – the causes of specific extremes can be seen as a politically charged issue.
In the aftermath of an extreme event such as a fire or flood, it can be seen as insensitive or overly political to discuss the human-induced causes of loss of life or property. The views of political and media leaders can be influential in shaping public opinions about extreme climate events.
Another part of the problem is that for a long time, many scientists themselves repeated this message because of the complexity of the climate system. All extremes take place in a naturally variable and chaotic climate system, which complicates event attribution.
Attribution scientists have the greatest clarity and confidence in attributing heat events that occur over large areas and extended time periods. For example, two separate studies found that the 2013 extreme heat in Australia would have been virtually impossible without human-caused climate change.
Rainfall events are trickier. This complexity can create confusion about the extreme events that are better understood, and lead to missed communication opportunities.
The need for better communication
Understanding the precise causes of recent extreme weather and climate events isn’t just an academic pursuit.
Extreme event attribution has become a research avenue with important benefits to the public. Society’s beliefs about which events are caused by climate change will influence decisions about how to adapt to those changes. Poor decisions in this area can jeopardise infrastructure and human health.
For example, if we dismissed the link between climate change and the 2003 European heatwave without scientific analysis, we would be poorly prepared for protecting vulnerable people from heat stress in the future under further global warming.
Any assessment of future climate risk and preparedness requires a scientific basis. It should not be based on opinions formed from personal perceptions, media reports, or politicians’ comments.
A community responsibility
Changes in extreme weather and climate events are the primary way that most people experience climate change. While scientific discussions around global average temperatures are useful for understanding the wider issue, you don’t experience “global average temperature”. Yet we all have some direct experience of extremes.
We argue that scientists need to communicate accurately the scientific links between extremes and global warming, so that people can make informed decisions about actions to limit the risks posed by these events.
We propose several simple guidelines for clear communication around extremes:
Lead with what the science does understand and save the caveats and uncertainties for later. For example, start by explaining the impact of global warming on heatwaves and then discuss the specifics of an individual event.
Use metaphors to explain risk and probabilities. For instance, discussion of global warming as “loading the dice toward more rolls of extreme events”, or
“stacking the deck” in favour of extremes, are examples of accessible language.
Avoid loaded language like “blame” and “fault”.
Use accessible language for conveying uncertainty and confidence. For example, scientists often use the word “uncertainty” to discuss the envelope
of future climate scenarios, but to the public, “uncertainty” means we just don’t know. Instead, use the word “range”.
Try to avoid language that creates a sense of hopelessness. For example, rather than calling further increases in some extreme weather “inevitable”, we can discuss the choice we face between a future with increases in extreme weather, and one with less.
These guidelines may also help the public evaluate the accuracy of reporting about weather extremes. If the link between an extreme event and climate change is rejected outright without an attribution analysis, it probably doesn’t represent the evolving science.
Conversely, if an extreme is presented as evidence of climate change, without discussion of nuance and complexity, it is equally unlikely to reflect up-to-date attribution science.
If scientists get better at communicating their work, and readers get better at assessing what’s accurate and what’s not, we will all be better informed to make choices that can hopefully stave off a future with more extreme weather.
This article is based on an analysis published today in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Bulletin, led by Susan Hassol and Simon Torok.
Australia and New Zealand were claiming a conservation success this week, when their resolution against lethal “scientific” whaling was adopted at the International Whaling Commission’s biennial meeting in Slovenia. But in reality the non-binding decision will do little to stop Japan’s whaling program.
This resolution aims to tighten the loophole that allows nations to catch whales under the guise of scientific whaling. It provides for greater oversight of the currently self-assessed special permits for lethal scientific whale research.
After the disappointment of failing to establish a South Atlantic whale sanctuary, the anti-whaling bloc of nations at the IWC meeting have hailed the latest resolution, with Australia’s environment minister Josh Frydenberg describing the decision as “a big win”.
Where next for Japanese whaling?
Japan conducts its whaling under a self-issued permit, under Article VIII of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This article allows a country to grant its nationals special licence “to kill, take and treat whales for purposes of scientific research subject to such restrictions as to number and subject to such other conditions as the Contracting Government thinks fit”.
In 2014 the International Court of Justice ruled Japan’s JARPA II whaling program illegal on the basis that it was “not for the purposes of scientific research” and therefore in breach of Article VIII. But crucially it did not ban all future scientific whaling activities by Japan.
After the decision, Japan created a new research programme called NEWREP-A (New Scientific Whale Research Program in the Antarctic Ocean), which purported to have different scientific methods to its predecessor.
As Japan no longer recognises the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice regarding “living resources of the sea”, arguments on adherence to the broader principle laid down in the decision would possibly be in vain.
A new tack
This brings us back to the new resolution, which was brought to the IWC by Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations in a bid to make it harder for nations such as Japan to issue themselves with special permits for scientific whaling.
The underlying principle is Australia’s repeated assertion that “lethal scientific research is simply not necessary”.
Japan’s new NEWREP-A program included the killing of 333 minke whales in the 2015-16 season, and the IWC’s Scientific Committee was powerless to prevent Japan from proceeding, given that the conditions of special permits are currently self-assessed and can proceed without scientific endorsement from the committee.
The new resolution establishes a Working Group under the Convention, which will consider the Scientific Committee’s recommendations in relation to all special permits. It also gives a greater role to the Commission in the process of issuing special permits.
The aim is to apply much greater scrutiny to the granting of special permits, rather than allowing nations simply to award them to themselves. Plans for special permits are requested to be submitted to the new working group at least six months in advance of the Scientific Committee’s meeting, alongside the data used to back up a country’s claims to be running a scientific whaling program. These data will be evaluated both during the program’s development, and during ongoing and final reviews.
These inquiries into the special permit will then be presented to the IWC itself, which will form its own official view on the proposed whaling program and publish its findings.
Overall, the resolution gives the Commission a much greater role in deciding whether a given nation should be allowed to kill whales. But resolutions are not legally binding, and there is no function to penalise those who do not follow them.
In response to the new resolution, Japan’s Commissioner to the IWC said that Japan “will abide by the Convention itself”. This implies that Japan will continue to apply its own interpretation of the Convention, and will not follow the extra steps outlined in the new resolution.
So despite the new emphasis on applying scientific scrutiny to whaling permits, at a higher level than before within the IWC’s structure, this actually doesn’t mean much in practical terms for Japan. The reality is that Japan will continue to act independently of IWC advice due to its view on what Article VIII means.
As a result, Japan is unlikely to stop killing whales any time soon, despite the efforts of Australia, New Zealand and other anti-whaling nations to shut the program down.