US ends Arctic Council chairmanship with reluctance on climate action

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FAIRBANKS — When he opened a meeting of his colleagues from all the Arctic nations, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged the obvious controversy that has clouded relations in the far north: President Trump has made the United States an outlier on climate change and the landmark 2015 Paris agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Trump administration’s climate-change policy is still unsettled — it has not yet decided what to do about commitments made in Paris under the Obama administration, Tillerson said at the ministerial meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council, held Thursday in Fairbanks.

Arctic Council participants stand for a photo on Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Fairbanks. Diplomats from member nations include from left front row: Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson of Iceland, Anders Samuelsen of Denmark, Margot Elisabeth Wallström of Sweden, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, Rex Tillerson of the United States, Børge Brende of Norway, Timo Soini of Finland, Christina Alexandra Freeland of Canada and Judy Garber of the U.S. Behind them representing official observer groups from left are: Patricia Lekanoff Gregory of the Aleut International Association, Bill Erasmus of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, Ethel Blake of the Gwich’in Council International, Josie Okalik Egeesiak of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, Vladimir Klimov of Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North and Asa Larsson Blind of the Saami Council. (Jeannette Falsey / Alaska Dispatch News)
Arctic Council participants pose for a “family picture” in Fairbanks Thursday. Diplomats in the first row represented the eight member nations of the council, while the second row contained representatives of official observers organizations. Left to right in the front row are Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson of Iceland, Anders Samuelsen of Denmark, Margot Elisabeth Wallström of Sweden, Sergey Lavrov of Russia, Rex Tillerson of the United States, Børge Brende of Norway, Timo Soini of Finland, Christina Alexandra Freeland of Canada and Judy Garber of the United States. (Jeannette Falsey / Alaska Dispatch News)

With temperatures rising faster in the Arctic than in temperate and tropical regions, the issue has become more urgent among people in the far north.

The Trump administration is still studying what it will do about the Paris agreement — which the president had previously vowed to abandon — and overall climate policy, Tillerson told the foreign ministers of the other Arctic nations and the leaders of the six indigenous groups that make Arctic Council policy.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pass the gavel to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Timo Soini, as the chair of the Arctic Council is passed to Finland at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson passes the official Arctic Council gavel to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Finland, Timo Soini, in a ceremony Thursday at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks marking the passage of the chairmanship of the council from the United States to Finland. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

“You should know we are taking the time to understand your concerns. We’re not going to rush to make a decision. We’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States,” Tillerson said before formally handing the gavel that symbolized transfer of the two-year Arctic Council chairmanship from the United States to Finland.

Almost all other Arctic leaders speaking at the meeting were forceful in their message that climate change is real and dramatic, especially in the north, and that it must be addressed by limits to carbon emissions, like those in the Paris  targets.

Finland’s chairmanship program emphasizes climate change and ways the Paris emissions targets can mitigate it, said Timo Soini, Finland’s foreign minister.

“We recognize that global warming is the main driver of change in the Arctic,” Soini said.

Some of the strongest language came from the indigenous leaders.

Patricia Lekanoff Gregory, speaking for the Aleut International Association, cited ocean acidification, warm-water-induced species migration, sea level rise and increasing frequency of extreme weather events as climate impacts threatening her people.

“All of these things are real and they are happening right now,” she said. “We cannot let politics interfere with the actions that are needed now.”

In the end, the Fairbanks Declaration, signed by the ministers of the eight nations, cites climate change in the Arctic and the importance of the role of Paris agreement in slowing it.

Wording about climate change, the Paris agreement and renewable energy had been challenged in the past week by the U.S. delegation, but it was mostly restored, a Finnish official said.

“I think we were able to push the U.S. back as much as possible,” Rene Solderman, a senior Arctic adviser, told reporters after the ministerial.

Other actions approved by the council were a binding science cooperation agreement, a strategy for preventing the spread of invasive species in the Arctic and a program setting targets for Arctic-wide black carbon reductions.