A Polar Law approach to climate change?

Who is legally responsible for protecting our ice caps? Could a Polar approach to climate change strengthen political and legal responses to climate change and other human activities in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions?

  • University of Canterbury Professor Karen Scott

University of Canterbury (UC) Law Professor Karen Scott and Professor David VanderZwaag (Dalhousie University, Canada), editors of the Polar Law Research Handbook explore these and other questions of law and policy relating to the Antarctic and Arctic in their new book, published in December 2020.

“We’re exploring whether we can readily and clearly identify a set of rules and principles that apply across the Polar regions, acknowledging, however, that the Arctic and Antarctic regions are different in many ways,” Professor Scott says.

“There are Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic, in contrast to the Antarctic – and of course the geo-political situation is quite different. The Arctic is largely under the sovereignty of a number of states whereas the Antarctic is managed as an international space under the Antarctic Treaty System.”

“In editing the Polar Law Research Handbook we were able to identify five broad principles that could underpin an emerging Polar Law. These include a strong cooperative and internationalised approach to regional governance, peaceful purposes, freedom and cooperation in scientific research, strong environmental protection and an emerging precautionary approach to climate change. And there is plenty of opportunity for the two regions to learn from each other and exchange best practise in order to improve how activities are managed at the Poles,” she says.

One possible benefit of identifying Polar Law (beyond law which applies to the Poles) is that it enhances the authority of the law, both within the regions themselves but also within other organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and the climate change regime.

Professor Scott says both regions have been wary of addressing climate change directly within the Antarctic Treaty System and the Arctic Council until recently.

“States argue that it’s not activities taking place in the Polar Regions that are causing climate change and there is a more appropriate forum to address climate change: the UN climate change regime. But in both Polar regimes, states have committed to protect the environment and it could be argued that in order to meet those commitments at the Poles states must take action to address climate change within their metropolitan state. This argument gets stronger as both regimes begin to take more action on climate change regionally, but unsurprisingly, this argument has not yet been accepted by key Polar states, including New Zealand!”

The Edward Elgar Research Handbook on Polar Law Research brings together 35 leading international researchers exploring the Polar Law that applies to territory, peoples and activities in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Karen N. Scott and David L VanderZwaag (eds), Research Handbook on Polar Law (Edward Elgar Cheltenham, 2020) 483pp https://www.e-elgar.com/shop/gbp/catalog/product/view/id/16700/s/research-handbook-on-polar-law-9781788119580/

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