U.S. Sends Mixed Signals on Climate Policy at Arctic Council Meeting

May 17, 2017

Secretary Tillerson Signs the Scientific Cooperation Agreement at the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks, AK.
Credit U.S. Air Force / Public Domain

The Arctic Council held their tenth annual ministerial meeting last week and adopted a science cooperation agreement that puts climate change front and center. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed that agreement, but also told council members that the U.S. will not rush and will “work to make the right decision for the United States” when it comes to climate policies.

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental advisory group consisting of eight member states – the United States, Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – plus six indigenous peoples’ organizations, and observer states and organizations. The Council doesn’t create laws or policies, but they can sign binding agreements. And their decisions have to be unanimous.

The Fairbanks Declaration adopted last week is only nine pages long, but it packs in a lot – indigenous peoples’ rights, science cooperation, sustainable development, marine protected areas, oil spill preparedness, and, of course, climate change.

The Declaration highlights the fact that the Arctic is warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and that Arctic change has local - as well as global – ramifications. It also affirms commitment to the Paris Agreement.

That’s a stark departure from the Trump administration’s widespread and vocal criticism of the Paris Agreement and the rejection of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Secretary Tillerson walked a fine line in his spoken comments, distancing the U.S. from concerns voiced by other countries, and saying that the U.S. won’t rush and will “work to make the right decision for the United States.”

Still, some voiced cautious optimism coming out of the meeting that the Trump administration may be willing to reconsider its stances on climate policy. Paul Berkman, Professor of Practice in Science Diplomacy at Tufts’ University’s Fletcher School, says Tillerson’s comments and actions signal that the administration may be in “listening mode.”

He also sees a broader, symbolic importance in the signing of the Fairbanks Declaration. He points out that this is the first binding scientific agreement for the Trump administration, and he says it really reiterates the role of science in promoting peace and international cooperation – something the Arctic Council has been working on for two decades.

In particular, Berkman says that Arctic cooperation could be a key part of resetting and improving U.S.-Russia relations. That’s notable, not only because of current political circumstances with regard to Russia, but also because the Arctic has often been portrayed as a place where national interests like shipping, or oil and mineral rights, create tension. Berkman says that’s a misperception.

In actuality, Berkman says the Arctic is a place of low tensions and stability – something the rest of the world could benefit from.