Washington’s uncertain position on climate change clouds Arctic talks

arctic-ice-melt1 Glacial melt. (Photo: Still from Obama Administration White House video)

Uncertainty over whether the Trump Administration will pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement is clouding talks among the eight Arctic Council nations, which have gathered to discuss the impact of climate change on the vulnerable region this week in Fairbanks, Alaska.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will lead the gathering but he won’t have many answers for his fellow foreign ministers. The Trump administration is in turmoil over whether to fulfill the president’s campaign pledge to “cancel” the landmark 2015 agreement among 197 of the world’s nations to address climate change, and has postponed a decision on whether to abandon the accord until later this month.

And while Tillerson is among those in the Trump administration advocating that America stay put in the agreement, he can’t make any guarantees his boss will see it that way.

“The question of the US view of the Paris agreement is still under consideration within the US government,” David Balton, the State Department official in charge of US participation in the Arctic Council, told US media this week. “The Arctic Council ministerial will not be the venue for that.”

Yet at a time when Trump seeks to gut science and environmental funding and slap back progress the United States has made toward international climate commitments, Balton said America wouldn’t shut down participation in climate science on the Arctic.

“The US will remain engaged in the work the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout,” he said.

climate-march3 Climate marchers filing past Trump Tower Chicago. (Photo: Flicker/Max Herman, Survival Media)

The meeting will be attended by foreign ministers from seven nations with territory in the Arctic ­– which scientists warn is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and is poised to suffer trillions of dollars worth of climate change-related damage to infrastructure in the coming decades.

Some already visible repercussions in region include enormous ice loss from the ice sheet of Greenland, which is now raising sea levels by as much as a millimeter every year, major retreats in floating sea ice, and the thawing of  permafrost, which destabilizes infrastructure and releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

While the Trump Administration has reinvigorated squabbling over the science behind climate change, plugged a return to coal, and cosseted the oil industry by proposing to open the American Arctic to drilling, the Council’s other six members have been emphasizing their national commitments to reducing greenhouse gases under the Paris agreement.

These opposing approaches are bound to cause friction as the Council’s members move Thursday to adopt a consensus on language for a joint statement, which has been the subject of diplomatic quarrels for weeks. Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland want the statement to make reference to the Paris accord, while US officials have reportedly sought to have those references left out.

But Balton – who is a career diplomat, rather than an administration ideologue ­­– suggests the Fairbanks Statement, as the document will be called, won’t neglect mentioning climate change.

“There are number of issues at play, and I’m reasonably confident that it will come out fine in the end,” he said in an interview with Climatewire.

He cast the disputes over Paris in Trump’s chaotic White House as a natural adjustment period while the new administration hammers out its own approach.

“Anybody who spent time in or studying the Arctic knows that the region is warming, that climate change is a real issue here,” Balton said in separate comments to the New York Times.

The Paris Agreement seeks to hold global warming to “well below” a 2 degrees Celsius increase over pre-industrial levels. Trump had repeatedly mocked climate change as a “hoax” and “very expensive … bullsh*t,” but scientists say the Arctic will continue to feel the brunt of climate change at rates far higher than the rest of the world.

Scientists further suggest that upheavals in the Arctic will have ripple effects further south, which as a result will see more extreme weather events.

Since its founding two decades ago, the Arctic Council has focused on environmental and sustainability issues. One of its working groups, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, released a report last month summarizing conditions in the region, concluding that “the Arctic will experience significant changes during this century even if greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized globally at a level lower than today’s.”

The council is specifically excluded from considering military issues, and even on environmental issues it has little power or authority.

While Washington continues to waffle over its commitment to the Paris accord, Finland, which assumes chairmanship of the Arctic Council from the US this year, has said climate change will continue to be the council’s central concern.

Aleksi Harkonen, Finland’s senior Arctic official, said even if the United States reduced its commitment to the council and Arctic issues, the organization’s work would continue.

“Of course we would be disappointed,” he told the New York Times. “But we would continue with the implementation of the program. And we would have the support of everybody else.”

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no