FAIRBANKS, Alaska – Arctic nations have renewed calls for the world to address climate warming, but U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States will not rush to make a decision on its policies.
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Tillerson spoke Thursday in Fairbanks, Alaska, at a meeting of the Arctic Council, an advisory group made up of the eight Arctic nations and indigenous groups.
The council adopted a nine-page "Fairbanks Declaration 2017," which noted that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average. The document noted the importance of reducing soot and methane emissions and said climate change is the most serious threat to Arctic biodiversity.
Tillerson signed the document. But in opening remarks, he cautioned that the United States is reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change.
"We are 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," Tillerson told other representatives on the council. "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, he said, will continue to be an important platform as the Trump administration deliberates.
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Trump has said little about Arctic policy, but he has taken steps to put U.S. Arctic Ocean waters back in play for petroleum drilling.
The Arctic Council's goals are sustainable development and environmental protection of the Arctic. The council does not make policy or allocate resources, and its decisions must be unanimous. The United States, an Arctic country because of the state of Alaska, is joined on the council by Canada, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.
Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom said she walked away from a private conversation with Tillerson hopeful of the U.S.' intent in the region.
"He said, well, you know, we ought to first establish our climate policy and then decide on the Paris Agreement and how it relates," Wallstrom told The Associated Press. "And I think that sounds reasonable to do so."
The worst-case scenario feared by some would be that Tillerson used this gathering to announce the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
"Then that did not happen, and I think that bodes well for the future," Wallstrom said. "I believe that we will see a continued American engagement and commitment to the Arctic."
The United States chaired the council for the last two years. The U.S. highlighted three areas during its two-year chairmanship — improved living conditions and economies for those living in the Arctic, stewardship of the Arctic Ocean and climate change.
David Balton, a deputy assistant secretary of State, said other accomplishments included an agreement for scientific cooperation among Arctic nations, an assessment of improvements needed for better telecommunications, and implementation of a database of ships passing through the Arctic.
Tillerson at the close of the meeting turned the gavel to Timo Soini, minister of foreign affairs for Finland, which will take over chairmanship until 2019. Soini said Arctic resources and transportation routes may attract interest.
"We should make sure that all human activity is sustainable, increasing opportunities to benefit the people who already live in the Arctic region, and certainly also the indigenous communities," he said.
Two broad frameworks, Soini said, should be taken into account in all Arctic Council activities: Climate change, especially the Paris Climate Agreement, and sustainable development goals that the United Nations adopted two years ago.
Tillerson arrived late Wednesday afternoon in Fairbanks. Protesters gathered in a city park nearby to denounce the presence of Tillerson, who was president of Exxon Mobil Corp.
"My message for Rex Tillerson is: Alaska shouldn't be for sale for what's in our earth," said Hannah Hill, 36, who works at a Fairbanks soup kitchen. "This place is beautiful, and this place is delicate, and what already is happening in the Arctic will affect the rest of the Earth. And that is science."
Pat Lambert, a retired University of Alaska math professor, attended the rally because he believes climate change is a serious problem.
He suggested Tillerson "should get away from his cronies in the oil business and start listening to the people of Alaska, for instance, and the people of the world who are so interested in these issues."
After the rally, the protesters marched behind a sign reading, "Welcome to the frontline of climate change," to the building where the Arctic Council welcoming celebration was being held.