At Fairbanks Arctic Council meeting, the big question mark is climate change

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Alaska for the meeting of the Arctic Council. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

As representatives from eight Arctic nations gather in Fairbanks, one issue is looming over the meeting: climate change.

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The Arctic Council is the main forum for international cooperation in the Arctic, and the meeting has drawn foreign ministers from across the North, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In a ceremony Thursday morning the U.S. will formally hand over chairmanship of the Council to Finland, but the hand-off comes at a moment when U.S. Arctic policy is up in the air.

The Obama administration had emphasized climate change and scientific research during the two-year U.S. chairmanship. But the Trump administration is currently debating whether to pull out of the international Paris agreement to limit carbon emissions.

That’s raised concerns among the international crowd gathered in Fairbanks this week.

“Of course it raises concerns,” Annika Nilsson said. She’s with the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden. “The U.S. is a big emitter of greenhouse gases; that needs to change.”

Participants also voiced concerns about whether the U.S. will remain engaged in the region. The Trump administration has proposed major budget cuts to the State Department, which oversees American participation in the Arctic Council.

But Ambassador David Balton, the chief U.S. Arctic official, said American policy in the region hasn’t really changed since the early 90s, even as each new administration puts its stamp on it.

“This new administration has not yet begun that process,” Balton said. “But my own feeling is that U.S. interests in the Arctic are long-term and enduring, and they have a lot to do with the state of Alaska, and that’s not changing. So, if the past is prologue, one might not expect so much change.”

The Arctic Council meeting begins at 10 a.m. Thursday, May 11th, at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks.