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.
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.
“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.