FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Diplomats from eight Arctic nations are facing a standoff today over the Trump administration's efforts to downplay the importance of climate change in an Arctic Council ministerial statement marking the end of the United States' two-year council chairmanship.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the top foreign ministers from the world's seven other Arctic nations are due to arrive in Fairbanks today for tomorrow's Arctic Council ministerial meeting.
During that meeting, the top government officials are scheduled to sign a final statement highlighting the accomplishments of the U.S. chairmanship, as well as Finland's plans for its upcoming term as head of the council.
But foreign policy staff arriving in Fairbanks early this week said they have not yet signed off on the wording of the ministerial statement proposed by the White House in advance of the meeting. They disagree with Trump administration efforts to weaken the references to climate change and the Paris climate accord.
The officials are meeting with U.S. officials this morning to hammer out the final language of the ministerial statement. Like all Arctic Council actions, that statement must be reached on a consensus basis. Along with the United States, the council is made up of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.
At issue is the abrupt change in the U.S. position on the Paris Agreement since the November election. Former President Obama made climate change the top issue when the United States took the lead of the Arctic Council in 2015.
President Trump, however, has sidelined Arctic policy issues and largely ignored the Arctic Council climate priorities of his predecessor. Trump has dismissed the science backing climate change and proposed to open the American Arctic to oil and gas drilling. His White House is currently embroiled in debate over whether the United States should continue to participate in the Paris Agreement.
Balton 'reasonably confident'
Meanwhile, most of the other members of the Arctic Council have been emphasizing their commitment to reducing greenhouse gases under the Paris agreement.
The five Nordic countries recently issued a statement strongly affirming the Paris accord and vowing to take the lead on climate and energy policies. At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supported the Paris Agreement on the floor of the Parliament in Ottawa, Ontario, and called climate action "particularly important amongst Arctic nations."
It's not clear whether Canada and the Nordic countries are likely to issue a joint informal statement on Paris if Tillerson and Trump insist on dropping it from the formal declaration. The Arctic Council has a history of friendly cooperation, and observers say such a move would be a noted departure.
State Department Ambassador David Balton conceded yesterday that the Arctic Council ministerial statement was still a work in progress, though he wouldn't confirm that climate change is at the center of the dispute.
"There are number of issues at play, and I'm reasonably confident that it will come out fine in the end," he said.
Balton, a career diplomat who has served as the chairman of the council's senior Arctic official, has been careful to downplay any conflicts between the Trump administration's Arctic policies and those of past presidents.
"U.S. Arctic policy has not changed very much, administration to administration, going all the way back to the early '90s," Balton told reporters. "The Clinton administration, the Bush administration, the Obama administration all developed their own version of Arctic policy. But they're mostly similar.
"This new administration has not yet begun that process," he noted. "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. That's not changing. So if past is prologue, one might not expect so much change."