Chairman of the APPG for the Polar Regions, MP for North Wiltshire, James Gray, documents his recent fact-finding mission to Antarctica, in his capacity as Chairman of the Polar Regions Sub-Committee of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee. He, and five other MPs from the Committee travelled to Antarctica to better understand the challenges facing this icy continent.
Greetings from the South Pole...or at least from the British Research station at Rothera on the Antarctic Peninsula. Its 9,000 miles away from the South Cotswolds, and a heck of a lot colder. I am surrounded, not by cows and horses, but by seals and whales and (especially) penguins. And the main topic of conversation is not politics…far less Wiltshire and Gloucestershire issues. It’s all about science, climate change, and biodiversity.
I have the great privilege to be Chairman of the Polar Regions Sub-Committee of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and am leading a cross-party group of five MPs and two Parliamentary clerks for a long series of in-depth discussions with the scientists and officials who represent Britain in this most remote spot on the Globe.
We have used up a large part of the Christmas Recess for the expedition - RAF plane from Brize Norton to the Falkland Islands for talks, and then on to the magnificent Royal Research Ship, the RRS Sir David Attenborough (Boaty Mc Boatface – if you remember) across Drake’s Passage and some of the roughest oceans on earth to this remote outpost of Britishness on the Antarctic Peninsula.
The visit is the beginning of a long process of discussion in Parliament on some of the great Antarctic issues of the day. Climate change lies behind all of our discussions- about melting ice, warming oceans, changes in fish and wildlife as a result; about outstanding British science and the huge contribution we are making to studying climate change and considering what we can do about it; about the complex infrastructure which is needed for those studies, and how it can be afforded; about why it is so important that the UK has a presence in Antarctica from a geopolitical standpoint (China has at least 5 bases here); and about how the Great White Continent can be managed for decades to come - via the Antarctic Treaty System and the Convention for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources - to ensure it remains the haven of peace and scientific enquiry which the Treaty envisages.
We have seen for ourselves the reality of climate change - the vast icebergs the size of the Isle of Wight which have broken off and are now threatening South Georgia; the serious consequences of Avian flu which has resulted in widespread deaths amongst the fur seal population; the consequences of untrammelled krill fishing, especially by the Chinese, particularly for seals, albatross and whales; and the retreating glaciers, many of which may well be thousands of years old, and whose melting will have huge consequences for ocean levels in the Northern Hemisphere.
We have had a great many lengthy and detailed meetings with people with whom we could not interact in any other way; we have seen for ourselves how British science works in Antarctica; and we have been able to experience the extreme conditions and remoteness under which our brilliant scientific community has to work. So it’s been an extremely demanding visit; but it, together with the other stages of our inquiry will result in a published report later this year which will, we hope, make an important contribution to these hugely important Global environmental discussions. I hope it will raise the vision of the 5 MPs on the trip, and the many others who will be influenced by it, and so will play an important role in understanding the environmental changes which are besetting the Globe and play some little part in countering them. If so, it will have been worthwhile work.