Trump administration sought last-minute changes to soften Arctic Council climate-change commitment

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed the Fairbanks Declaration on May 10, 2017. Details have emerged about how U.S. officials sought to weaken language on climate change and other environmental issues in the Declaration. (Linnea Nordström/Arctic Council Secretariat)
When foreign ministers from all eight Arctic nations signed a declaration this month committing their countries to fighting climate change, they had to reckon with a new U.S. president who has dismissed climate science as a hoax and threatened to pull out of the landmark 2015 Paris agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.

Now details have emerged about how U.S. officials sought to weaken language on climate change and other environmental issues in a declaration issued in Fairbanks this month by the eight-nation Arctic Council.

InsideClimate News, a nonprofit news site, published language changes proposed by the United States for the Arctic Council’s declaration issued at the end of its May 11 ministerial meeting in Fairbanks. The U.S. proposed six changes to weaken wording about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and renewable energy, according to InsideClimate News.

Ultimately, discussion of climate change and an embrace of the Paris agreement remained in the final Fairbanks Declaration. The document was signed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and foreign ministers of the other seven Arctic nations — a unanimity required by the consensus-only policy of the Arctic Council.

That was a relief, said Margaret Williams, U.S. Arctic program manager for the World Wildlife Fund, an Arctic Council observer organization.

“I think, in the end, it was a really strong statement,” Williams said. “I think there was a lot of very strong language that would be something that everybody would be happy to see — everybody in the climate world.”

Last-minute drama

Before it was released, however, the Fairbanks Declaration had to endure last-minute drama and some subtle tweaks that, in spots, might have tempered the message of urgency.

The U.S. objections to strong climate-change language represented an abrupt shift.

Under the Obama administration, climate change was central to the two-year U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which ended at the May 11 ministerial meeting. Obama demonstrated his commitment to the issue when he made a historic three-day trip to Alaska in 2015 at the start of the chairmanship.

The Obama philosophy appeared to remain temporarily in Arctic Council affairs even after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, until as late as March, when the council’s senior Arctic officials met in Juneau and produced a nearly completed draft declaration to be signed in Fairbanks.

But right before the Fairbanks ministerial meeting, the U.S. submitted requests for significant changes that would have weakened the document, said officials involved with the Arctic Council.

Jim Gamble, executive director of the Aleut International Association, one of the six indigenous groups that are Arctic Council permanent participants, said he feared three possible bad outcomes. There could have been a declaration without references to climate change and Paris, he said. There could have been no ministerial declaration at all, “which has never happened in the history of the Arctic Council,” or there could have been an unsigned declaration demonstrating lack of consensus, which also “would have been a first.”

Requested changes
According to NASA scientists and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), sea ice in the Arctic appears to have reached its lowest maximum wintertime extent ever recorded on March 7, 2017. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

According to the draft obtained by InsideClimate News, the Trump administration specifically sought to drop wording that encouraged action on the Paris agreement; omit the term “renewable” from a passage about providing energy to Arctic communities; downplay the role of carbon emissions in climate warming and the threat that climate change poses to Arctic biodiversity; and remove a commitment to meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, according to the draft obtained by InsideClimate News.

The U.S. also tried to tone down references to the council’s newly released Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report, according to InsideClimate News. The SWIPA report, written by about 200 scientists and updating an earlier version issued in 2011, assesses current and projected Arctic warming, thaw and melt and strongly urges member nations to cut emissions under the Paris agreements.

The U.S.-requested changes were tackled in a May 10 closed-door meeting that started out tense but lightened as elements important to the non-U.S. Arctic were defended, Gamble said.

“The mood was not very good in the morning,” he said. “As we went along, the mood got better and better.”

As signed on May 11, the Fairbanks Declaration includes several of the phrases that the U.S. had tried to drop, though there were changes in wording, according to the draft obtained by InsideClimate News.

It adopts the SWIPA report and all of its recommendations. But, according to the draft obtained by InsideClimate News, it omits wording that describes the report’s dire findings about sea ice, sea level rise and Arctic warming’s influence on mid-latitude weather.

Even without that wording, adoption of the SWIPA report is critical to the declaration, said Rafe Pomerance, a former State Department official who now leads a network of science and Arctic climate organizations.

“If you go to the SWIPA report, the entire Arctic story is there, not only the unraveling up to date but the estimates of future trends,” he said. “By embracing SWIPA, you embrace the entire climate program.”

United front

Though they happened behind closed doors, the last-minute May 10 negotiations on climate and environmental language were no secret at the ministerial meeting.

Rene Soderman, a senior Finnish Arctic adviser, told reporters after the document was released that other nations put up a mostly successful resistance to the U.S. efforts.

“I think we were able to push the U.S. back as much as possible,” he told reporters covering the ministerial meeting.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was not in the negotiations, said she was pleased that the final product addressed Arctic climate and carbon emissions “head-on.”

“I think that this declaration is probably as clear a reference point right now as we have on the new administration’s view of climate and a recognition that working collaboratively, at least with the seven Arctic nations, there is a way to work to address it,” Murkowski told reporters in Fairbanks after the document was signed and released on May 11.

“I know that it was not easy to come to this level of consensus. I was not part of those deliberations, but I do know they were serious and they were long, and I think what they yielded was an important document,” she said.

Denmark’s concerns

The United States was not the only nation that sought to soften wording in the Fairbanks Declaration.

Denmark expressed some objections at the March meeting in Juneau to language about black carbon and methane, said Gamble of the Aleut International Association.

The language concerned recommendations from an expert group working on the issue for several years. The chief recommendation is for Arctic nations to slash their future emissions of those pollutants, which are considered short-term climate-warming material. By 2025, the expert group said in a report released at the ministerial meeting, total emissions should be 25 percent to 33 percent lower than in 2013.

Language in the Fairbanks Declaration falls short of an endorsement of the black carbon and methane report. Instead, it says council members “note the importance” of the work.

The wording tweak might seem minor but it is meaningful, said Gamble, whose organization has been working to inventory and reduce black carbon, a pollutant that harms people’s health and can warm the environment.

“We were very strongly in favor of adopting the report rather than welcoming it,” he said.

Gamble said he believes Denmark’s concerns have to do with ambitions in Greenland, a relatively undeveloped territory, for new industrial and economic activity.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Arctic nations sign scientific cooperation agreement, Radio Canada International

Denmark/Greenland: Ice-Blog: Deciding Arctic future in Fairbanks and Bonn, blog by Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Finland: Arctic Council presents united front as Finland takes over from U.S., Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Norwegians and Icelanders let Alaskans in on the secrets to economic prosperity, Alaska Dispatch News

Norway: Establishment of Álgu Fund marks new beginning in Arctic Council, indigenous peoples say, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic Council ministerial – View from Russia, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sweden’s climate minister worried about Trump’s stance on global warming, Radio Sweden

United States: United States: U.S. ends Arctic Council chairmanship with reluctance on climate action, Alaska Dispatch News

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