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Kerry’s March to the Penguins

Why Secretary Kerry is Stopping in Antarctica Before Next Week’s Trip to Morocco for the U.N. Climate Change Summit

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.

Next week, Secretary of State John Kerry is traveling farther south than any senior U.S. official has gone before: Antarctica.

His objective — beyond an exotic two-day, 11th-hour trip to visit the penguin constituency — is to learn about the firsthand impacts of climate change at the world’s coldest, driest, and windiest continent.

A State Department official told reporters Friday the trip aims to give Kerry more credence when he sits at the negotiating tables of next week’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Morocco. A second official said the Antarctic toe-touch will give Kerry first-hand experience to witness “the potential impacts of … the consequences of climate change.”

And the consequences could be very real. Antarctica is comprised of an ice sheet two miles thick. If it melted in its entirety, global sea levels would rise over 150 feet, according to the State Department. That might make beachfront property in Colorado a valuable commodity someday, but it will be far more fraught for tens of millions of people worldwide.

If just one Antarctic glacier, the Pine Island Glacier, melted in its entirety, global sea levels would rise by over five feet. In theory, this could displace 145 million people around the world who live at or below sea level. By comparison, war and other conflict have displaced 65 million people worldwide, the State Department said.

Kerry’s trip on Nov. 10-12 will follow an landmark international agreement establishing the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica. The 600,000 square-mile marine protected area – nearly twice the size of Texas — is the result of “five years of very complex negotiations” among 24 member states of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The commission announced the agreement on Oct. 28.

Rod Downie, polar program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, told the Scotsman the reserve was “a milestone for the conservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.”

Kerry’s South Pole sojourn kicks off a nine-day trip that also includes New Zealand, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Peru.

Antarctica, roughly 1.5 times the size of the United States, is home to some 80 research stations. One State Department official said the United States has more people, scientists, and personnel on the continent than any other country.

Photo credit: EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer