Why US climate hostility might be a bigger threat to Arctic Council cooperation than security tensions

Even after Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, Arctic nations were able to work together in the Arctic Council. But U.S. disputes over climate change language could undermine that.

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during meetings with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. Pompeo’s attendance at the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting in Rovaniemi signals U.S. engagement in the Arctic — but disputes over climate change language are threatening to undermine that. (Carlos Barria / Reuters file photo)

The Trump Administration’s reluctance to recognize climate change as a major problem in the Arctic is currently frustrating negotiations in the run-up to the important bi-annual meeting of the Arctic foreign ministers that will take place in Rovaniemi, the main city in Finland’s Arctic region, on Tuesday May 7.

As I write this, it appears that all eight foreign ministers will attend the meeting, including Russia’s Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. While this is certainly a welcome and important sign of their continued will to pursue cooperation in the region, hopes of tangible outcomes from Rovaniemi seem to be waning.

I remember how momentous the effect of Hillary Clinton’s presence was when she attended the Arctic Council ministerial in Nuuk, Greenland in 2011, but then she was the first U.S. Secretary of State to ever attend such a meeting. Today, it will take more than the presence of the VIPs to produce a success.

Global warming is happening more than twice as fast in the Arctic than elsewhere on the planet, but while several of the governments in the Arctic Council — those of the five Nordic nations in particular — are keen to boost the Arctic Council’s efforts to combat climate change and to assist Arctic communities, flora, fauna and environment as they adapt to the effects of climate change, the U.S. negotiators have reportedly been consistently adverse to such common and clearly labelled climate action.

A few days prior to the meeting their position apparently is still such that the ministers may indeed finalize their talks in Finland only with a meager status quo or even a diminished set of climate change ambitions and mandates to the Arctic Council and its subsidiary bodies.

I learned this in particular from a surprisingly downcast professor Timo Koivurova, director of the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland i Rovaniemi. Koivurova has been for a number of years a very close follower of the Arctic Council, a leading expert on Arctic governance, and the looming question to him as we spoke was no longer to what degree the ministerial will succeed in widening and strengthening the Arctic Council’s climate efforts, but if the council under U.S. pressure to the contrary will be able to sustain even its present level of climate ambitions:

“That is the concern that I have and also with me many of those who are following the Arctic Council for the moment. The question is really now whether the U.S. can live with the current level of climate change work. Already, the Arctic Council is doing so much about climate change, whether its scientific assessments or increasing the capacity in the Arctic regions to adapt to climate change consequences and the work on methane and black carbon,” he told me on the phone from Rovaniemi.

On top of his research, Timo Koivurova is also involved in some of the practical work within the council’s scientific working groups and like other Arctic academics and diplomats, he is normally quick to highlight the tangible results that flow from Arctic collaboration, but now he appears markedly tempered. There was anxiety also prior to the previous ministerial in Fairbanks in 2017 that the Trump administration, represented by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would stem Arctic Council climate efforts. Then, at the last moment Tillerson was persuaded to support at number of Arctic Council climate initiatives. But Koivurova is reluctant to bank on such a last-minute change in U.S. positions this time around.

Climate as a non-issue

Arctic Council negotiations are kept confidential. The ministers from all eight Arctic nations and the representatives of the Arctic peoples within the Arctic Council are to adopt a declaration that will guide the work of the council for the next two years and they have also been expected to adopt the Arctic Council’s first ever longer term strategy.

Lately, however, Canadian and Nordic sources have aired frustrations about their U.S. counterparts similar to those shared by Koivurova. In March, the chief of negotiations, Finland’s Aleksi Härkönen, spoke here on ArcticToday of the “differences of opinion about the urgency of addressing climate change.” Later, Radio Canada International quoted Canadian sources that it was “proving challenging to find language, particularly related to the climate, that the Americans can support”.

In attempts to secure progress without explicitly mentioning climate change, some actors within the Arctic Council have attempted build consensus instead around pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but in this effort they have also met U.S. resistance, Koivurova told me.

“I have felt it in my own work. First they had problems with the individual goals. I was told not to mention any of the individual goals, but then by the end of the day they asked that the SDGs were not mentioned at all,” he says.

The U.S. endeavors to avoid any explicit recognition of climate change in the Arctic reached a new peak in April when the U.S. Coast Guard published a 46-page Arctic strategy. Throughout this document, the authors managed to avoid the term “climate change,” describing instead climate change effects in the Arctic, including mudslides, eroded coastal communities, acidification of the seas, melting permafrost, damaged infrastructure, disappearing caribou, the receding ice cover, the melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet and so forth as “environmental transformation.” Meanwhile, the Trump Administration’s efforts to allow oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska are attracting attention.

Media coverage of the Arctic often focus on Russian military activity. Russia has re-opened or established new bases along its northern shores and on islands in the Arctic Ocean; Russian military exercises in the Arctic are on the rise and Russia, the E.U. and the U.S. are still embroiled in a bitter exchange of sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. These sanctions impact the trans-border work of scientists in the Arctic, they frustrate Russia’s import of important technologies for its oil and gas industry in the Arctic, and they are a big reason why almost all military collaboration in the region is on hold. But many Arctic watchers, including Koivurova, still believe that the Arctic states — including Russia — remain intent on keeping such security-related differences out of the realm of the practical joint work within the Arctic Council and its subsidiaries. In January 2018, some 60 academics from the University of the Arctic Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security nominated the Arctic Council for the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for its ability to expand cooperation on climate change, community support, biodiversity, environmental protection and so forth even in times of tension.  

Koivurova finds that U.S. reluctance to address climate change currently causes more disturbance to the Arctic Council than the differences on security.

“The Arctic has always played a major role in Russia’s overall military strategy. Its Northern Fleet is extremely important, but I don’t see that this has spilled over into the overall work of the Arctic Council’s actual working groups or other subsidiary bodies. These issues are excluded from the Arctic Council and to me that is a good thing. The states can come together and talk about very concrete issues like environmental protection and sustainable development in the Arctic. They have a venue here for dialogue and cooperation also during the very tense times we live in” he says.

“The ongoing sanctions after the Russian annexation of Crimea are there of course, but they are not really interfering with the work in the Arctic Council. There is however, a clear spill-over effect from the establishment of the Trump Administration and more and more so. I think it is fair to say that it has had an effect also on the everyday work of the Arctic Council,” he says.

In 2017, the eight governments represented in the Arctic Council (Russia, the U.S., Canada and the five nordic countries) collectively agreed on an increased effort to curb emissions of black carbon, which constitute a growing problem in the Arctic. Black carbon from industry, power plants and households in the US, Asia and Europe travel on the winds to the Arctic where it blackens snow and ice. It attracts more solar heat that speed up local warming that has also global effects. The majority of the eight governments would like to boost their join efforts to combat black carbon, but this may prove hard:

“Now that we are approaching the ministerial meeting, there are concerns because the discussions about climate change are so difficult. The message is that this U.S. administration is not happy about multilateral fora,” says Koivurova.

He fears that other efforts may also suffer, such as emerging plans for a new subsidiary body, a commission to coordinate work on marine protected areas in the Arctic. Also, hopes that the eight Arctic states would take on a stronger common role in the global negotiations on climate change, such as promoting further cuts in black carbon emissions by countries outside the Arctic, seem to weaken.  

Will Pompeo give or take?

Between more pessimistic comments, Koivurova points to the many tangible results of Arctic cooperation. A historic moratorium on unregulated fisheries in the international waters in Arctic Ocean was imposed in 2018, and binding agreements on prevention of oil spills, on search and rescue at sea and science cooperation are slowly being implemented. The many scientists contributing to the Arctic Council’s working groups continue to produce impressive amounts of data that assist the Arctic communities, enrich global climate negotiations and the global efforts to preserve the world’s biodiversity — and many observer countries, China, Japan, Korea etc. are slowly integrated into this work. Finland, that has chaired the Arctic Council for the last two years, have worked to include in these efforts the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, which now contributes to more precise climate projections, and better ice and weather services in the Arctic.

The attendance of all eight foreign ministers in Rovaniemi — if it happens — will rightly be interpreted as a token of recognition of all this, but the presence of the U.S. secretary of State may also complicate matters, Koivurova predicts. As one of President Trump’s closer allies, Michael Pompeo may be particularly averse to accepting responsibility for additional or previous commitments up for renewal that explicitly address climate change.