Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participated in a rare public event this week in Alaska, as he officially handed the reins of the Arctic Council to Finland for the next two years.
Under U.S. leadership, the council has made significant strides in addressing pollution, particularly heavy fuel oil (HFO) and black carbon, which have outsized impacts on climate change, and in improving relations with indigenous communities. But, of course, it’s a new era now, and under the Trump administration, Arctic-watchers have been waiting with bated breath to see if Tillerson would undermine efforts to address climate change.
In his remarks at the close of the conference, Tillerson noted that the administration is “reviewing” a variety of U.S. policies, including on climate change. “We are not going to rush to make a decision,” he said. “We are going to work to make the right decision for the United States.”
He did not, though, take a hard line against including climate change as part of the council’s formal statement, the major outcome of the biannual meeting.
In her comments, the Canadian representative thanked the United States and said that, despite difficult negotiations, the council “came to a really good place with [its] statement.”
In the official declaration, the council says its actions are “recognizing that activities taking place outside the Arctic region, including activities occurring in Arctic States, are the main contributors to climate change effects and pollution in the Arctic, and underlining the need for action at all levels.”
The group acknowledges that “the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, resulting in widespread social, environmental, and economic impacts in the Arctic and worldwide, and [there is a] pressing and increasing need for mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience.”
In addition, the group notes “the entry into force of the Paris agreement on climate change” and reaffirms “need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”
The language is similar to previous declarations, but it is remarkable in the fact that Trump’s America signed onto it.
“Just five months ago, a standard, commonplace agreement like this to share climate science research and reiterate the importance of global action to reduce climate pollutants would have barely been newsworthy,” the Sierra Club’s global climate policy director John Coequyt said in an emailed statement. “These positions — agreed to by a U.S.-led coalition of eight nations — are supported by the vast majority of the American public and every nation on earth, making it clear just how inexcusable and disastrous it would be for the Trump administration to weaken our commitments or go so far as to pull out of the Paris Agreement in just a few weeks time.”
President Trump has repeatedly said he would “cancel” the Paris climate agreement and has denied that climate change is a real, existential problem.
That’s a tough position to take in the Arctic, which is warming rapidly and experiencing a multitude of climate change-induced issues.
“The challenges facing the Aleut… are more varied than ever before,” said Arlene Gundersen, president of the Aleut International Association (AIA), one of the Arctic Council’s permanent indigenous participants. Gundersen said her community is facing fish depletion from ocean acidification, sea level rise, and increased severe weather events.
“The data on the causes are irrefutable,” she said.
Signing on to the Arctic Council declaration is, in some ways, a remarkable example of the State Department’s contradictory position in the Trump administration. While Tillerson has said he personally supports the United States staying in the Paris agreement, it’s unclear how hard he is pressing the president — or how much influence Tillerson even has.
In addition, the State Department under Tillerson issued — as directed — an approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, and Tillerson himself is an old oil man, coming to the position after decades at the helm of ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, Trump has directed the Department of the Interior to reconsider opening the Arctic for additional oil exploration.
Whether the U.S. stays in the Paris agreement or signs on to declarations against heavy fuel oil use, what the country actually does in terms of permitting, enforcement, and policy will be more important to reducing carbon emissions and mitigating against climate change.