Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has signed a pledge calling for timely action to address climate change during a meeting of nations with a vested interest in protecting the Arctic. Some State Department officials reportedly expressed surprise at the move because of the White House’s ongoing efforts to roll back environmental protections.
Tillerson signed the pledge, called the Fairbanks Declaration, Wednesday night during the 10th meeting of the Arctic Council, a network of eight nations with territory in the region, including Russia, Canada and the Nordic countries. The document specifically urges the ratifying bodies to “note with concern the widespread impact of climate change on the Arctic” and calls for the implementation of the Paris climate agreement.
Tillerson’s signature took some State Department officials aback because he’s yet to give any indication as to whether the U.S. will stay in the Paris pact, Reuters news agency reported, citing an anonymous source at the department.
“We’d heard ... that there would likely be a significant U.S. effort to redline or even remove entirely the Paris and climate language,” the source said.
The New York Times in March reported the Trump administration was split on the Paris agreement, with Tillerson and White House adviser Ivanka Trump urging for the U.S. to stay in. White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon was among those pressing the president to withdraw. The White House has postponed meetings on climate change twice in recent months, and Tillerson gave no hint this week about whether the United States would continue to abide by the terms of the accord.
At the close of the council’s meeting Thursday, Tillerson said the U.S. would “continue to be vigilant in protecting the fragile environment in the Arctic” and the White House was “currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change.”
“We’re appreciative that each of you has an important point of view and you should know that we are taking the time to understand your concerns,” he said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We’re not going to rush to make a decision. We’re going to work to make the right decision.”
The Arctic Council meets once every two years, and Thursday’s meeting marked the end of the United States’ chairmanship of the group.
The language used in the council’s final declaration, signed by seven other foreign ministers, was a sharp departure from the rhetoric and action that the Trump administration has taken to describe climate change in recent months. This has included a proposed slash in funding at the Environmental Protection Agency and calls to increase domestic protection of coal and oil.
The declaration pointed to such activities, and said signatories recognized “that activities taking place outside the Arctic region, including activities occurring in Arctic States, are the main contributors to climate change effects and pollution in the Arctic, and underlining the need for action at all levels.”
The Arctic has become a bellwether region for the impacts of climate change. The area saw the lowest winter sea ice levels in recorded history earlier this year, which have already opened up previously unnavigable passageways for new shipping routes. A report that the Arctic Council’s internal working group released last month found the region could be ice free far earlier than expected ― and that would significantly contribute to sea level rise and a host of climate-related effects.
“The Arctic states, permanent participants, and observers to the Arctic Council should individually and collectively lead global efforts for an early, ambitious, and full implementation of the [Paris Agreement],” the report urged.