Tillerson to answer climate questions at Arctic Council

US secretary of state will fly to the world’s fastest warming region to join ministers in a statement that could sit uncomfortably with his president’s anti-climate agenda

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson says the US has no plan to re-write the Paris Agreement (Photo: Office of the President-elect)

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Secretary of state Rex Tillerson will be asked to clarify the US stance on climate change when he meets with foreign ministers of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Thursday.

Eight countries are set to agree a ministerial statement on cooperation in the region, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. It will cover both environmental protection and economic development – including oil exploration and shipping made possible by retreating ice.

Ahead of the summit, state department career diplomat David Balton told media the statement would “have a lot of material about climate change in the Arctic”.

He added: “Anybody who spent time in or studying the Arctic knows that the region is warming, that climate change is a real issue here, and the Arctic Council has certainly been paying attention to it. And so the Fairbanks Declaration will certainly be talking about that work that the Arctic Council has done.”

Balton said he was “very confident” the US would remain engaged in the work of the Arctic Council on climate change.

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But the Trump administration is seeking to water down references to the Paris climate deal, E&E Climatewire reports, pending a decision on whether to withdraw from the deal.

While Tillerson has advocated for the US to keep a seat at international climate talks, he has also disputed the scientific consensus that global warming is mostly caused by human activity.

Russia, too, has shown ambivalence towards the climate agenda. President Vladimir Putin defended science deniers in a recent CNBC interview, adding that global warming “brings in more favourable conditions and improves the economic potential of [the Arctic]”.

It puts them in opposition to Nordic countries, which last week emphasised their commitment to the Paris Agreement and noted “with grave concern” the rapid pace of change in the Arctic.

Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s minister for the climate and environment, said: “The situation in the Arctic is in no way a problem that affects only the Arctic. The thawing permafrost is releasing methane, which contributes to further warming. The melting ice sheets and rising sea levels put low-lying and densely populated communities throughout the globe in danger.”

Finland is taking over chairmanship of the forum after the US’ two-year term.

At an event at the Finnish ambassador’s residence in London on Thursday, officials emphasised opportunities both for scientific collaboration and infrastructure investments.

Harri Mäki-Reinikka, secretary general of Finland’s Arctic advisory board, stressed that climate change affected everything. “If we have the US and Russia that are not really sharing the view that it is happening or how much it is man-made, it is difficult to proceed,” he said.

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