Mar 112009
Authors: Phoenix MourningStar

With an average “permanent” population of around 1,000 people, only about 100,000 square miles of its more than five million square mile area not covered with ice, temperatures that can range from -112 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit and regions near the South Pole recording less than 5 inches of precipitation per year, Antarctica truly is one of the most desolate places on Earth.

And with only 4,000 to 7,000 scientists and just fewer than 40,000 tourists making their way to Antarctica each year, one might say it’s the missing link or Holy Grail for most adventure travelers.

Although ozone layer and climate change research tend to be what we hear about most, researchers are also interested in studying and observing the plant and animal life.

The human factor in the great debate on climate change is an issue that swirls around what happens in the Earth’s Polar Regions in our media. At the center of most climate change discussions are the greenhouse gas emissions that play a major role in the greenhouse effect, which some people believe and others dispute is causing global warming — or at least contributing to changes in climate patterns.

As it stands, auto emissions and combustion of petroleum products are major contributors to releasing carbon and the generation of other greenhouse gases. This makes it somewhat counterintuitive that British Petroleum, which Forbes marks as one of the world’s riches companies and largest producers of petroleum, is sending students on a renewable energy and climate change expedition to Antarctica.

The “green” reputation of BP, in the eyes of many of my environmental and human rights colleagues, has been a hot topic in my e-mail over the past three months — most of them citing BP’s $1.5 billion renewable energy investment in 2007 in comparison to the company’s mega-revenue and the human-rights turmoil stemming from the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline Project.

All said, can we as individuals demand cheaper oil and still cry out about how the people we give our money to spend it?

I’m pretty conflicted about the argument myself. Even though I don’t own a car, I fly and drive and spend money that ends up in the hands of big oil — an amount that dwarfs any monthly membership payments to Amnesty International, GreenPeace or the World Wildlife Foundation.

These same issues, as well as some for you readers, I hope to pose to the representatives of BP and fellow participants later this month; so please send in your questions.

As the trip is lead by 2041 (, a group formed by researcher and explorer Robert Swan, a large bulk of our discussions will focus around the issues of preserving Antarctica, a stated mission of the organization. The name 2041 was symbolically adopted as it is the year in which the environmental provisions of Antarctica Treaty — in which parties agreed Antarctica would not be exploited for mining or military proliferation — come under review.

I think the union of these two organizations highlights the fact that our own consumption of petroleum here in the U.S. is a major part of the climate change debate puts oil companies at the center of any talks about moving toward sustainable energy. It’s certainly our purchasing habits that have helped push these companies to begin looking into renewable energy as a source of revenue.

Consider the sudden drop in gas prices when the industrial world, including the U.S., decreased their rates of consumption last year. These were conscious decisions at individual levels that have made oil companies look for new revenue streams.

Whether these business decisions are made from the pocket book or from the moral concern for planetary health, I think we need to continue to encourage these moves toward sustainable practices on all levels.

Phoenix Mourning-Star is an environment health graduate student. His column appears Thursdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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