Tillerson gets earful on climate change from Arctic governments

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chaired the 10th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks on May 11, 2017. (Photo by Arctic Council Secretariat Linnea Nordström)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson got an earful from governments around the Arctic today — on the topic of climate change.

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Tillerson was in Fairbanks to chair a meeting of the Arctic Council, which brings together nations and indigenous groups from around the region. The U.S. was formally handing over the rotating chairmanship to Finland.

The Arctic Council takes a keen interest in climate change, and it’s waiting to see how the Trump administration will handle the issue – and whether the U.S. will withdraw from the international Paris climate accord.

Tillerson tackled the issue head-on during his opening statement.

“We are appreciative that each of you has an important point of view,” Tillerson said. “And you should know that we are taking the time to understand your concerns. We’re not going to rush to make a decision, we’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States.”

The Trump administration has indicated it will decide whether to remain in the Paris agreement within weeks.

Many of Tillerson’s counterparts took the opportunity to press for action, including Swedish foreign minister Margot Elisabeth Wallström, who asked what the planet say if it had a seat at the table.

“Perhaps our planet would say, I’ve been your best friend since the industrial revolution,” Wallström said. “I’ve done everything I can to dampen and absorb. I’ve tried to keep Greenland and the permafrost in Siberia intact. And I have sent you no invoices. But it is about to change.”

That point was made over and over again. Each Arctic nation and indigenous group had three minutes to speak and hardly any let the chance pass without mentioning climate change.

The Gwich’in Council International declared, without coordinated action, “our culture cannot survive.” Finland, the incoming chair, called global warming “the main engine of change” in the region.

Michael Sfraga is with the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. He said the emphasis was notable.

“It was not lost on anyone that the emphasis on climate change was there,” Sfraga said. “And of course messaging to the administration in this country, I believe, that the other seven have recognized the importance of the Paris agreement. And I don’t think they were shy about underscoring their commitment to recognizing and dealing with climate change.”

That message is also clear in the joint statement released by the Council after the meeting, called the Fairbanks Declaration.

The Declaration, approved by the entire Council, included strong language on the impacts of climate change in the Arctic – acknowledging the Paris climate agreement and calling for global action.

The Council also adopted the third binding agreement in its 20-year history — to improve scientific cooperation.