Birds eye view of icebergs

Polar extremes

Future of Arctic and Antarctic poles under irreversible threat

Polar regions are increasingly at the centre of environmental, geo-political and cultural shifts, but it has now become imperative to protect these pristine wilderness areas from catastrophic change.

The poles have become a striking focus for observing and understanding environmental change in recent times. Global warming is melting glaciers across the world at an alarming rate, and experts warn that humans have only 12 years to take action to avert devastating and irreversible climate change. This change could include the extinction of unique species such as polar bears, who won't be able to adapt if their habitat disappears.

At the same time human exploitation of the polar regions presents us with a changing theatre of geo-politics, particularly when ships are ploughing new routes through melting ice floes. The prospect of warming polar regions is generating fresh interest – and concern – about new industrial and military applications for the poles. 

The Antarctic Treaty System – a bundle of international agreements that regulate the Antarctic region – has taken on a new significance as a model for cooperative international action. Firmly established images of the poles as pristine wilderness areas have been called into question, forcing humans to rethink their relationship to the Arctic and Antarctic through literature, media, and culture.

This panel will discuss how our relationship with the polar regions has changed in the 21st century and what the polar regions reveal about the broader environmental challenges facing the world today, as we collectively combat climate change and unpack its deeper implications.

This event was held on Tuesday 6 August, 2019 at the University of Sydney.

The speakers

Elizabeth is Professor of English at the University of Tasmania and an ARC Future Fellow. She is studying the passion for literature that the hostile continent of Antarctica evokes, and the power in turn of literature to influence what we think and feel about Antarctica. Her work highlights the need for a presence of the humanities as well as the sciences in Antarctic research.

Tim is Professor of International Law and Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of Sydney. He is President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law. Tim teaches and researches in public international law, with his published work focusing on the international law of the sea, international environmental law and international dispute settlement. His major works include The International Law of the Sea (Hart, 2nd edition, 2016), with Donald R Rothwell, and International Courts and Environmental Protection (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

His ARC Future Fellowship research project is examining the implications of the Anthropocene for international law. Tim has a PhD in law from the University of Sydney, a Master of Philosophy in geography from the University of Cambridge, and a BA and LLB (both with honours) from the University of Sydney. He is admitted as a legal practitioner in the Supreme Court of New South Wales.

Rohan is a Junior Research Fellow in the Laureate Program in International History at the University. 

Glenda is Professor of International History, and ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow at the University of Sydney. She has published widely on the cultural history of international relations, internationalism, the history of European nationalisms, sovereignty, identity, immigration and gender history.

More to think about

  • Elizabeth Leane, South Pole: Nature and Culture (2016).
  • Elizabeth Leane, Antarctica in Fiction: Imaginative Narratives of the Far South (2012).
  • Tim Stephens, ‘The Antarctic Treaty System and the Anthropocene’ (Polar Journal, 2018)
  • Handbook on the Politics of Antarctica (Klaus Dodds, Alan D. Hemmings, and Peder Roberts eds, 2017).
  • Michael Byers, Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North (2009)

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