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Climate Change Still at Center of Arctic Council Priorities Despite U.S. Uncertainty

As the council’s chairmanship passes to Finland, Arctic nations recognize the impact of abrupt warming to their region, agree to curb black carbon emissions and aim to boost scientific cooperation.

Written by Hannah Hoag Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds the Arctic Council chair's gavel before handing it to Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini as Finland becomes the chair during the plenary session of the Arctic Council meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, on May 11, 2017.Nicholas Kamm/AFP

FAIRBANKS, Alaska – In April 2015, when the U.S. took the chair of the Arctic Council, climate change was at the heart of its agenda. Now, two years later, U.S. climate change policy remains up in the air, as President Donald Trump deliberates whether or not to stick with the Paris climate agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who chaired the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska, last week, told the assembled delegates that the U.S. would continue to advance the “welfare and living conditions of those who call the Arctic home.” But he stopped short of revealing whether the Trump administration would reaffirm its international commitment to reduce carbon emissions with the goal of keeping global warming below 2C (3.6F).

Tillerson joined the foreign ministers from the other Arctic Council nations – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway and Russia – to sign the Fairbanks Declaration, a statement that recognizes the impacts of climate change in the region and on those living there.

The statement identifies the emissions of greenhouse gases and black carbon from outside the Arctic region as the main contributors to climate change in the Arctic, and names the implementation of the Paris climate agreement as an important step towards slowing global warming.

Delegates had arrived in Fairbanks believing that the text of the agreement had been settled. But the day before the meeting, the U.S. delegation took issue with some of the language on climate change, the Paris agreement and renewable energy, and asked to renegotiate several paragraphs, said René Söderman, a senior Arctic adviser for the Finnish delegation.

“We worked it through yesterday,” he said. “We were able to push the U.S. back as much as possible, and they were able to go back as much as possible, but it is a decent declaration.”

The Trump administration has been leaning towards backing out of the Paris climate accord, although Tillerson has encouraged Trump to stay in the pact.

Addressing the forum, Tillerson made it clear that the U.S. had not yet reached a decision on whether to stick with the international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“In the United States, we are currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change,” Tillerson said. “We’re not going to rush to make a decision. We’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States.”

The Arctic Council – an intergovernmental forum established in 1996 to address issues in the Arctic region – hosts a ministerial meeting once every two years, where it tables reports and recommendations, provides updates on its projects and transfers the chairmanship.

After Tillerson spoke, representatives of member nations and permanent participants rose to address the council and its chair. They reminded those assembled that climate change is a real and growing problem in the Arctic and mentioned the Paris climate agreement. The ongoing thaw in the Arctic could have cumulative costs as high as $90 trillion by 2100, said Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström. “The 2030 agenda and the Paris agreement provide a science-based path away from these risks,” she said.

The council later approved an agreement on scientific cooperation, the third legally binding agreement in its 20-year history. The agreement aims to make it easier for scientists, their equipment and samples to move across borders, and to provide better access to civilian research infrastructure.

Julie Brigham-Grette, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and chair of the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, who began working in Russia in 1991 and has faced challenges bringing equipment into the country, called the agreement “really strong.”

If the Arctic nations implement the agreement as intended, it should reduce the legal and bureaucratic barriers scientists sometimes face when working in other countries.

At the council’s meeting in Iqaluit, Canada, in 2015, the nations agreed to reduce methane and black carbon emissions from burning wood or fuels in the Arctic, which contribute to climate change. This year, the council adopted a report on Arctic black carbon and methane emissions that set targets for the Arctic states to reduce black carbon emissions 25 percent to 33 percent below 2013 levels by 2025 to slow the pace of warming.

In addition, the council accepted seven of the 20 countries and organizations who have applied to be observers, including Switzerland, the National Geographic Society and the World Meteorological Organization.

At the end of the meeting, the U.S. handed over the chairmanship of the council to Finland, which will set the organization’s agenda for the next two years. For Finland, this includes a focus on environmental protection, telecommunications, meteorological science and education.

Timo Soini, the foreign minister of Finland, mentioned climate change and the Paris agreement several times as he presented the Finnish program. “The Arctic will not remain what it once was or what it is now,” he said. “Climate change will fundamentally change the Arctic region.”

On the subject of education, he acknowledged the need to develop better skills training programs for those living in the Arctic, and to find ways to cope with long distances and minority languages.

“We need skills training for traditional activities, like reindeer herding and fishing, but also in hospitality, tourism and things like this,” said Mikhail Pogodaev, board member of the International Centre for Reindeer Husbandry and chair of the Northern Forum.

During her address to the council, Okalik Eegeesiak, the international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which represents Inuit in Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, said Finland had the support of her organization.

Looking to the future of the Arctic Council, she said, “Let’s have the courage to make it even better.”

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