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White House Mum on Arctic Priorities as Key Meeting Approaches

Arctic experts are watching to see whether U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will attend the Arctic Council meeting in May as a sign of how engaged the Trump administration will be in the region.

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When the United States hands off its chairmanship of an influential Arctic forum to Finland in May, policy experts say the Trump administration could use the high-level diplomatic meeting where the handoff will occur as a chance to focus on Arctic issues. However, they note, the new and still lightly staffed administration has not yet given many signals about its Arctic priorities.

“There has been no particular focus on the Arctic that this administration has announced, no new direction,” U.S. Ambassador David Balton said earlier this month following a preparatory meeting in Juneau, Alaska, of senior Arctic officials (SAO) of that forum, called the Arctic Council.

Since starting its term in the rotating chairmanship of the council in April 2015, the United States has focused on addressing climate change and its impacts; promoting ocean safety, security, and stewardship; and improving economic and living conditions for Arctic communities. The council’s eight member states, including Russia, work together to address Arctic regional issues. The body also includes six indigenous organizations as permanent participants and more than 30 observer parties.

“For the most part now, our guidance is to keep doing what we’re doing. That could change between now and May, but I don’t actually expect it will,” said Balton, deputy assistant secretary for oceans and fisheries at the U.S. State Department, who also serves as SAO chair.

On schedule is a legally binding agreement on scientific cooperation for Arctic Council members to sign at the 11 May meeting, referred to as a “ministerial” because it is meant to convene top-level diplomats of the member nations. The council also has been working on many other issues. Those include Arctic marine biodiversity, shipping, telecommunications, and black carbon pollution, which accelerates melting of ice and snow. In addition, at an April meeting in Virginia, a council working group is scheduled to release a report titled “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic: Summary for Policymakers, 2017,” an update to a 2011 report known as SWIPA.

An Opportunity at the Ministerial Meeting

U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski told Eos that the Trump administration “has a huge opportunity” at the ministerial “to show that it can coherently engage on a key strategic issue,” the dramatic change in the Arctic. That issue is of importance not just to the Americans living in the Arctic but also to close allies like the Canadians and the Nordics and to a strategic competitor like Russia, he explained.

“Working to use that platform of the ministerial to align a shared approach to the challenges we face in the Arctic and beyond would be applauded and is an opportunity the Trump administration should not miss to exploit,” said Brzezinski. He served in the Obama administration as executive director of the U.S. government’s Arctic Executive Steering Committee, which was established in 2015 to provide guidance and coordination of U.S. Arctic policies.

Brzezinski added that scientists conclude that the acceleration of climate change in the Arctic has been underestimated. “Understanding the threats to communities due to the water rising is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It is a human safety issue, and it is incumbent on us to fund the research and science to better understand what is happening,” he said. “We need more funding for government research, especially in a place as costly to operate as the Arctic, rather than less.”

The Unraveling of the Arctic

The updated SWIPA report and other documents that could come out prior to the ministerial detail “the unraveling of the Arctic” and create an opportunity for policy makers to respond, said Rafe Pomerance, chair of Arctic 21, a network of organizations, scientists, and research institutions. Administration officials “will have to either respond to these assessments or ignore them and return to the pre-Enlightenment stage of climate rhetoric,” Pomerance told Eos.

“The Arctic offers the opportunity for a rethink of Trump climate policy. And it’s really up to [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson as to whether he wants to lead a rethink,” said Pomerance, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development under President Bill Clinton. Pomerance added that hoping for a rethink of Trump’s climate policy is an optimistic, though “unlikely perhaps,” outcome of the ministerial. On Tuesday, the White House issued an “energy independence” executive order rescinding or reviewing a number of Obama administration policies related to climate change.

Working with the Trump Agenda

Other Arctic policy experts also said that the Arctic region offers a potential opportunity for the Trump administration. Mead Treadwell, a Republican former lieutenant governor of Alaska who served from 2010 to 2014, told Eos that the Trump administration could focus on Arctic projects such as new icebreakers and Alaskan pipelines and ports as it pursues an infrastructure overhaul, greater energy development, and efforts to fix trade imbalances.

Treadwell added that “there is plenty that a new administration could be proud of and support in what the Arctic Council has done the last 2 years” during the U.S. chairmanship. He said, for instance, that the forthcoming science cooperation agreement, which could improve research access and opportunities, “is basically bipartisan common sense” whether the agreement emphasizes climate science or resource science. He said that some council efforts amounted to “practical local work on climate change.”

Treadwell said he hopes the council continues as a venue where the United States and Russia can work constructively, despite differences in other areas. Now the president of Pt Capital, an Anchorage-based private equity firm, Treadwell added that the council should maintain a stronger relationship with another body, the Arctic Economic Council, that it spawned to facilitate Arctic economic development.

Signals from the Administration

John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, an independent federal agency in Arlington, Va., said that whom the administration chooses to attend the ministerial will offer a telling sign of how much attention the Arctic will get under Trump. Former U.S. secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry attended earlier ministerial meetings. Pomerance said that Tillerson’s attendance at the meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Fairbanks, Alaska, could influence who shows up from other governments.

Several policy experts, including Julie Brigham-Grette, chair of the Polar Research Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, focused on another possible early signal of the administration’s approach to the Arctic: the administration’s proposed budget cuts to environment and science agencies.

“The polar regions are in a state of rapid, unprecedented change due to human-caused warming of our atmosphere. It is terribly shortsighted for the Trump administration to dismiss scientific research and international collaborations as fluff, especially around climate-related fields when action, now, is so important to American society and our economy,” Brigham-Grette told Eos. “We certainly hope the Trump administration will further U.S. leadership on Arctic issues, even as we pass the chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Finland in May.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), White House mum on Arctic priorities as key meeting approaches, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO070701. Published on 29 March 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0