U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host foreign ministers from Arctic nations at a summit in Alaska on Thursday, where President Donald Trump’s reluctance to fight climate change will likely cast a shadow over talks. The Arctic Council, which includes the United States, Russia, Canada and five other countries, meets every two years to tackle problems in the region, which is warming at a faster pace than any other part of the world. Unlike former President Barack Obama, Trump has expressed doubts about whether human activity has a significant role in climate change, and is mulling whether to pull the United States out of a global pact to fight it.
He is expected to decide whether Washington will leave the 2015 Paris Agreement, or stay in with reduced commitments, after a Group of Seven summit at the end of this month. Canada and the Nordic countries have stressed the importance of staying in the Paris agreement, setting them up for a potential clash with the United States over language in a final agreement to be reached at the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting.
It is of “decisive importance that the United States remains part” of the Paris agreement, Norway’s Foreign Minister Borge Brende told Reuters this week in Norway. Arctic warming is thawing permafrost and melting sea ice, causing damage to infrastructure but also opening up new oil reserves, shipping routes and access to fisheries – intensifying a decades-long race for Arctic resources.
This year’s agenda will highlight sharing science on climate-related issues, and also address Arctic search and rescue and communications. Adding pressure on the Trump administration, scientists from the United States and other Arctic nations issued a report ahead of the meeting that the impacts of warming in the region could lead to trillions of dollars worth of damage to buildings, roads and other infrastructure this century.
Following the meeting, Tillerson, the former chief executive of energy giant Exxon Mobil, will hand over the chairmanship of the council to Finland, which plans to stress the Paris pact as it leads the council over the next two years. Trump’s administration has also reversed Obama-era bans on offshore drilling in certain parts of the Arctic, a turn that could intensify competition for resources in the region with major oil producer Russia.
Russia has beefed up its military presence in the Arctic to levels not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union, as global interest in the region’s oil, gas and rare earth metals heats up. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Washington on Wednesday with Tillerson and later with Trump before flying to Alaska.