Background Briefing: Previewing Secretary Kerry's Travel to Antarctica

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
November 4, 2016

MODERATOR: Great. Thank you. And thank you to all of you for joining us. Today we have two senior State Department officials who will be speaking on the Secretary’s travel. For your information, not for reporting purposes, first we have [Senior State Department Official One], as well as [Senior State Department Official Two].

[Senior State Department Official One] is [title withheld]. [Senior State Department Official One] will speak to U.S. Antarctic policy and how it relates to the Secretary’s visit to the continent. [Senior State Department Official One] will be known as Senior State Department Official One.

[Senior State Department Official Two] is [title withheld]. [Senior State Department Official Two] will speak to the effects of climate change on Antarctica.

So with that, I turn it over to our Senior State Department Official Number One. Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official One].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you very much. Good afternoon. So I wanted to mention in connection with the Secretary visiting Antarctica that he is the senior most U.S. official who has gone to that continent. So it’s a special moment in that respect. The U.S. has a number of major interests in Antarctica. But first of all, I wanted to mention that, as you may know, it’s a very big place. It’s one and a half times the size of the continental United States. It’s the coldest, driest, highest, and windiest continent. It’s two miles thick at the South Pole, a location that the Secretary will be visiting. It’s record low temperatures. It has been minus 126.9 degrees Fahrenheit, so it does get quite cold there. He won’t be going to a place that’s quite that cold.

It has over 80 research stations overall. And for the U.S., we have three all-year research stations – one at the South Pole that he will be visiting, one McMurdo Research Station, which is the largest of all of the stations in Antarctica. And the U.S. has the most persons in Antarctica, the most scientists and support personnel. It sends about – a third of the tourists who go there are American citizens, and half of the tour expeditions that go are licensed or registered with the United States.

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in Washington in 1959, and it provides the terms under which territorial claims there are handled, and provides that the continent is dedicated to peace and science.

So major U.S. policy interests include promoting scientific research, environmental protection of the continent, ensuring that those who go there are safe, including marine safety for tourists, sustainable management of marine living resources, and regulation of the tourism industry.

The U.S. is an active participant in the Antarctic Treaty System, which has two main elements. One is the annual Antarctic Treaty consultative meetings, and the other is CCAMLR, which is the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. And CCAMLR is the body that has jurisdiction over marine conservation, and it produced last week after five years of very complex negotiations, what is the largest marine protected area in the world in the Ross Sea, which is an area where McMurdo Station is located. So the Secretary will be going to the site of this new marine protected area. That marine protected area is about 1.55 million square kilometers, about twice the size of the state of Texas, and has been a major objective of the Secretary and the department for a number of years.

So at this point, maybe I’d turn it over to – sorry, to the Speaker Number Two and – if you’d like to take it.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Great, thank you very much. So you are probably all aware the Secretary intends to travel from Antarctica up into the climate negotiations which will be held in Marrakesh, Morocco. They actually start this week coming on Monday, but the high-level sessions which he will be participating are the week after. One of the advantages that accrues for the Secretary having come from the continent is that he will have firsthand seen some of the potential impacts that one might observe from the consequences of climate change.

And let me give you a couple of statistics that put this into context. One of the things that we worry about as a consequence of global warming – and this is over an incredibly long period of time – is that we are seeing more rapid melt in the Antarctic continent as a whole. For the purposes of scale, if you think about the entire ice sheet – and it was mentioned that that is two miles thick at its thickest point – but if you were to convert that to water, you’d end up with a sea level rise globally of 187 feet, or 57 meters.

Now, it’s not melting that fast. We don’t expect that to happen. What we see are much more modest changes. Unfortunately, they’re not really modest in the scheme of our society. Current evidence suggests that one of the glaciers flowing on the entire ice sheet is something called the Pine Islands glacier. That glacier used to be sitting on the surface and was essentially floating – rushing down the edge of a slope. It’s now floating in the ocean and it’s being undermined as a consequence of some changes in the ice – the ice system balances. If that melts – and people believe is that it may have melted over the course of the next century – that would lead to a sea level rise of one and a half meters, or on the order of five feet. If you think about where we’ve been so far, sea level rise to date has been only about 10 inches, so 5 feet ends up being enormously damaging.

At the same time, there’s really a lot of variability in the continent. We’re seeing a really – a variety of different parts of the continent. There’s been in some cases additional snow accumulation, partly also a function of climate change. If you elevate the temperatures, you also change the quantity of moisture that can be held by the atmosphere, so you get somewhat more precipitation sometimes. But the new research suggests that we are seeing much more likely rapid melt around the periphery of the continent overall.

So the Secretary will be able to see a number of these features and will be talking to the research community when he goes there around what’s happening and what the projections are. And that gives him a remarkably powerful voice when he comes to the climate talks to be able to say that firsthand he has seen these things and talked to these communities. We have been of the view that the impacts of sea level rise are among the most significant. There are 145 million people around the world who live at less than one meter above sea level – in other words, they live in an area less than three feet above mean sea level. If you imagine a one-and-a-half-meter rise just from this one glacier, you would displace at least that many people. Again, for context, the current number of refugees from civil conflicts around the world is only 65 million; 145 million people would be displaced at a one-meter rise. So you see these kinds of serious consequences.

One other piece that’s interesting is that we often worry not only about the consequences for the sea level rise, but also about a change in the ocean composition. Melting an enormous quantity of ice will change the salinity of the ocean. It will also change – as a consequence of climate change, we’re starting to change the acidity. As concentrations of CO2 get absorbed by the oceans, one of the things that you see is that that increases. And we’ve seen more of that concentration – because of the temperature of the oceans, more of the concentrations in the acid at the polar latitudes. Because colder water can absorb or hold more of this carbon dioxide than warmer waters, as the carbon dioxide comes out of the atmosphere and is absorbed by the oceans, it’s the cold oceans that take up more of that total, which means they become more acid. And one of the things that that does is it limits the capacity of shells to form. Those shelled organisms are that the base of the food chain, and you see real consequences to the polar regions in particular for ecosystems, but that then has implications more widely.

So in any event, these kinds of things will be things that he will be talking about with scientists who are down there, will bring with him when he comes to Morocco for the climate negotiations the following week.

Let me stop with that and turn it back.

MODERATOR: Thank you so much. Now, Operator, we’ll open it up to questions.

OPERATOR: Certainly. For questions, please press * then 1.

Speakers, we have no questions queuing up at this time.

MODERATOR: That’s great. We’ll give it a few more minutes or a few more seconds.

OPERATOR: And once again, for questions or comments at this time, please press *1 on your touchtone phone. That is * then 1. We do have something from Chris Mooney, Washington Post. Please go ahead, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Do you have the Secretary’s itinerary at this point, what parts of Antarctica are going to be visited?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: My understanding is that he will first be going to McMurdo Station and he will – when he’s there, he’ll have a helicopter tour of the area. He will be meeting with scientists there. He’ll be visiting some of the research labs that are located at McMurdo. And then he will be flying on a C-130 to the South Pole Station. He’ll be there for roughly two to three hours. He’ll talk to the station leadership. He will talk to the scientists. He’ll see some of the different agencies that perform experiments down there. And then he’ll fly back to McMurdo and from there back to Christchurch.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Operator, if we can go to our next question.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Margaret Warner with PBS NewsHour, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. One quick question and then another. Is he going to the Ross Sea preserve at all? And secondly, what is it specifically that he hopes this sort of personal testimony he’s going to give in Morocco at the meeting, what difference does he expect it to make? What is – what does he want to accomplish?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I’ll take the Ross Sea part of that. So McMurdo Station is located on Ross Island, which is in the Ross Sea, and he’ll have an opportunity from there both as part of his helicopter trip and going out on the Ross Ice Shelf to see the Ross Sea. So all of that is part of the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area that was agreed last week at CCAMLR.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And on your second question, the answer is that the personal testimony gives him an enormously powerful voice when he talks about climate change impact. He has had a chance to see some of the significant changes in the Arctic and has spoken about those. People look at him differently, because he’s seeing them personally.

What’s extraordinary in the climate change conversations is how important the personal narrative is for people. Very seldom can people abstractly understand consequences until one has seen it and can touch it and can describe it. It’s a much more powerful story.

The second thing which I would note is that part of the conversation that we’ll be having in Morocco is how to think about the urgency of moving forward. And the Secretary has been very clear about our domestic agenda, about his personal agenda, but it’s our national agenda and about the global agenda of moving the climate change conversation forward. That means more rapid mitigation and, unfortunately, it also means a real need to think increasingly about adapting to impacts. And he can bring them back from his trip with really great force and urgency.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Operator, do we have other questions?

OPERATOR: For any additional questions or comments, please press * then 1 at this time.

MODERATOR: If there’s no additional questions, then I’d like to thank our senior State Department officials for joining us for today’s call. There is no embargo on this call. The transcript will only be posted when you’re wheels down in New Zealand. So final call for questions, Operator?

OPERATOR: Give me just one moment here. There are no questions. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: That’s great. So thanks to everyone for joining the call, and have a great weekend.