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Obama Calls For Limits on Antarctic Tourism

Even as more of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica threatens to crumble, in part due to warming temperatures, man’s influence on the continent is being heavily debated during these next two weeks in Baltimore. Timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that governs the continent, more than 400 officials and observers from around the world have gathered to ponder its future.

A seemingly bold, initial proposal was delivered by the Obama Administration at the onset of the meeting, via the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which wants to amend the treaty and impose mandatory limits on the size of cruise ships sailing there and the number of passengers they bring ashore.

Today, there are neither limits on how big a ship can sail to Antarctica, nor how many passengers it can carry. There are voluntary rules on how many people can land onshore at anyone time, which limits landings to the smaller ships – rather than the Princess Star, which carries more than three thousand passengers down to photograph icebergs from the comfort of its Jacuzzis. The Obama proposal encourages written changes to the treaty in order to “ensure that tourism is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

Amending the Antarctic treaty is difficult, in part because it requires the unanimous agreement of all 47 signatory countries. The new U.S. proposal contains no specific enforcement mechanism or penalties for limiting tourist operations. But it would require signatories to the pact to ensure that Antarctic tour operators bar ships with more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restrict landings to one vessel at a time per site and limit passengers on shore to 100 at a time. These numbers match the current voluntary limits, but go a step further by asking they become the official language of the treaty.

The number of tourists visiting the continent continues to boom; more ships and more people means more potential for calamity – in the past two seasons I’ve watched one ship sink, two more run aground. And there are other, unreported accidents each season. In 1992-93, 6,700 tourists visited … this past year more than 45,000. It’s clear that something needs to be done to limit or at least legally monitor the boom. I’m surprised such a specific proposal came from the U.S. … But I like it.

I was privileged last week to be invited to participate in the opening seminar of the brand new Institute at the Golden Gate, Turning the Tide. Envisioned as a west coast forum for conversation and action with an emphasis on global, national and local environmental issues and more if the opening affair, set at the elegant Cavallo Lodge, is an example of what’s to come we should be seeing intriguing reports and counsel issuing from the institute for many years to come. Pulitzer prize winners and Nobel laureates mingled with some of the country’s most noted food and health experts, big-picture global forecasters and businessmen who’ve proved you can make a buck being very green. Perhaps the most salient comment, in a jam-packed two-days of serious talk about our environment that could grind down even the most optimistic, came from guru-physician-Summer-of-Love-survivor Dr. Larry Brilliant, who confided he’d recently hung out on a U.N. panel with a bunch of big time thinkers and the result of their conversation was that if the planet is to be saved it will require an entire change in “human consciousness.” That’s all? I liked Dr. Stephen Schneider’s analogy – he is one of the planet’s preeminent global warming experts – that perhaps climate change and other environmental woes now need to be managed, like a serious cancer, rather than cured.

For the first time France has agreed to compensate victims of its nuclear testing in French Polynesia, which went on from roughly 1966 to 1996. For years courts have heard challenges from some of the 150,000 who witnessed the tests but until now it has stalled on either any responsibility, far less payback for those who say they are suffering from leukemia and thyroid cancer as a result.

Victims and their lawyers say though that the $13.5 million set aside for settlements is chicken feed. Roland Oldham, the president of the French Polynesian nuclear test veterans’ group, Mururoa o Tatou, told Radio New Zealand the deal is a bad joke.

“They announce a few million like that, just like we should be very happy, we should drop on our knees and say thank you to the French Government. But that’s not the case at all, because it’s peanuts, it really is peanuts when you compare how the French government spends a lot of money on defense.”

Oldham says the French plan is not good for the victims and says there needs to be a health structure to help them, and the environmental impact should not be ignored.

The Tuamotus, the remote French Polynesian chain where the testing took place, is one of my favorite parts of the world. We rode a cargo boat all around the area in 2002, but like everyone were disallowed from visiting the pair of islands where the testing had taken place. For more than fifty years France went to extremes to protect its nuclear-testing secrecy; the testing began in Algeria and continued in French Polynesia until 1996, when international protests convinced then President Chirac to end them. In 1985, France sent undercover agents to New Zealand to sink the Rainbow Warrior, a vessel from the Greenpeace environmental group, to prevent it from disrupting nuclear tests.

French authorities have reportedly agreed to publish archives explaining how nuclear tests were conducted. The moves followed many court cases in which testing personnel and residents living near nuclear test sites complained of cancer. If that happens – if they actually publish an honest report – it will make for very interesting reading.