Melting Arctic sea ice at Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada.
Melting Arctic sea ice at Pond Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. Credit: Peter Prokosch, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The Arctic Council delivered a strong declaration about the impacts of climate change during a ministerial meeting last week in Fairbanks, Alaska. The meeting marked the conclusion of 2 years of U.S. chairmanship of the influential intergovernmental forum. Finland now chairs the body.

The meeting’s Fairbanks Declaration notes the entry into force of the Paris agreement on climate change and emphasizes “the importance of global action to reduce both greenhouse gases and short-lived pollutants to mitigate climate change.” The document, which states that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average, recognizes climate change as “the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity” and reiterates the importance of climate science.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) chaired the Arctic Council’s 11 May ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) chaired the Arctic Council’s 11 May ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska. Seated beside him is U.S. Ambassador David Balton, who has chaired the council’s Senior Arctic Officials group. Credit: Arctic Council Secretariat/Linnea Nordström, CC BY-ND 2.0

The declaration, signed by representatives of all eight member countries of the Arctic Council, including U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, underwent some last-minute negotiations about wording on climate change, according to several delegations. However, they said the resulting statement recognizes the need to act on climate change.

“We got to a very good place on climate change in this agreement,” Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters after the meeting. Iceland’s senior Arctic official, Ambassador Arni Thor Sigurdsson, told Eos that although the Arctic states have different views on a range of issues, “the most important thing is that we managed to come to an agreement on a forward-looking and responsible approach to the challenges we are faced with in the Arctic.”

With U.S. president Donald Trump expected to decide the U.S. position on the Paris climate agreement after the Group of 7 meeting later this month, Tillerson said in Fairbanks that the United States currently is reviewing how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change.

“We are appreciative that each of you has an important point of view [about climate change], and you should know that we are taking the time to understand your concerns,” Tillerson said, calling the Arctic Council “an indispensable forum” in which to pursue cooperation. “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 Arctic Council will continue to be an important platform as we deliberate on these issues.”

A Brief Time to Inform Trump on Climate Change

Tillerson’s comments underscore that the scientific community and others don’t have much time to inform the Trump administration’s review about climate change, according to Brendan Kelly, executive director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change (SEARCH), a collaborative program of Arctic researchers and others based in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Michael LeVine of Oceana said he hopes the Fairbanks declaration “is a meaningful step in the evolution of the Trump administration’s approach to climate change issues.”

That review “is something that’s going to happen in a matter of weeks or months, not years,” Kelly told Eos. “This put a real onus on the Arctic research community to step up the pace of informing the U.S. and other governments about the global significance of all the change that’s happening in the Arctic. I’m feeling optimistic at least that the scientific community is beginning to respond to that challenge of finding a shorter route from research results to products that can really inform policy.”

Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for the conservation group Oceana, told Eos that he hopes the Fairbanks declaration “is a meaningful step in the evolution of the Trump administration’s approach to climate change issues.” Oceana, based in Washington, D. C., was admitted last week as an observer member of the Arctic Council.

Under U.S. leadership during the past 2 years, mostly during the Obama administration, the council made addressing climate change a top priority. Finland, which chairs the council for the next 2 years, has pledged to focus on environmental protection, meteorological cooperation, connectivity, and education, according to a statement from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. At the Fairbanks meeting, Finland’s foreign affairs minister Timo Soini said the Paris climate agreement “is the cornerstone for mitigating climate change.”

Scientific Cooperation

With the signing of the Fairbanks Declaration on 11 May, a legally binding agreement on international Arctic scientific cooperation came into force. The agreement aims to ease scientists’ access to geographic areas specified in the document to conduct terrestrial, coastal, atmospheric, and marine research. A product of the Arctic Council’s Task Force for Enhancing Science Cooperation, which is cochaired by Russia and the United States, the pact also facilitates access to scientific infrastructure and data.

Alexander Frolov, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Rosgidromet), told the Sputnik news service that “despite the rather complicated political situation [between Russia and the United States], our scientific cooperation continues.”

“It seems like science diplomacy is something that can weather otherwise very strained relations.”

The science agreement “is an expression of good will and intent,” said John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency. Farrell told Eos that although the agreement is legally binding, “it has to be exercised and there have to be success stories in order for it to have true value.”

Kelly of SEARCH said he hopes the agreement helps revitalize scientific diplomacy. “It seems like science diplomacy is something that can weather otherwise very strained relations.”

Approval of Arctic Science Report

Ministers at the meeting also adopted recommendations of a report issued last month by a council task force. Entitled “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic (SWIPA) 2017,” the report concludes that the Arctic is shifting rapidly into a new state in unexpected ways. Its recommendations include substantial near-term cuts in net global greenhouse gas emissions to stabilize Arctic warming.

Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21, a network of organizations, scientists, and research institutions, said the SWIPA report is an important tool in making clear the global implications of the “unraveling” of the Arctic.

At the meeting, Sec. Tillerson “probably got some reinforcement on the fact that climate change is really happening,” Pomerance told Eos. “There’s the hopeful side that the attention to the state of the Arctic can move policy. The less hopeful side is that the unraveling is accelerating.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Concern about climate change drives Arctic Council meeting, Eos, 98, Published on 16 May 2017.

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