U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed his name Thursday to a document that affirms the need for international action against climate change, adding further uncertainty to the direction of climate policy under the Trump administration.
The document, signed by Tillerson and seven foreign ministers from Arctic nations meeting this week in Fairbanks, Alaska, says the participants concluded their meeting "noting the entry into force of the Paris agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants."
Called the Fairbanks Declaration, the document says the leaders signed it "recognizing 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 Trump administration has been in conflict for months over what to do about U.S. involvement in the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, which commits nearly 200 nations to establishing goals to reduce emissions that lead to climate change.
Trump has repeatedly questioned climate science, calling climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and vowing during his campaign to "cancel" the Paris agreement.
His administration has aggressively begun trying to dismantle many of the climate policies created under the Obama administration, including federal rules to phase out coal-fired power plants, increase restrictions on vehicle emissions and limit methane leaks from natural gas production. The administration has announced reviews of Obama's decisions to limit offshore drilling and is reconsidering national monument designations made over the last two decades.
While some of Trump's closest aides have urged him to do withdraw from the Paris accord, experts say such a move could stir diplomatic tension with other nations. Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon, is among those who have argued that the U.S. should keep its commitment.
The Fairbanks Declaration does not affirm that the U.S. will honor the Paris accord. Nor does it explicitly state that human activity is causing climate change.
And Tillerson's spoken remarks at the meeting made clear that the administration is divided.
After vowing that the U.S. would "continue to be vigilant in protecting the fragile environment in the Arctic," Tillerson said this about current U.S. climate policy:
"In the United States, we are 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. We're not going to rush to make a decision. We're going to work to make the right decision," he added, pausing ever so briefly before ending with the phrase, "for the United States."
A video showed at the meeting before his remarks that was produced by the State Department referred to "ecological change," not climate change.
While Tillerson's comments were vague — the phrase "the issue of climate change" falls short of saying climate change is real — few of his counterparts at the meeting minced words.
Timo Soini, the foreign minister of Finland, said Finns "recognize that global warming is the main driver of change" in the Arctic.
Bill Erasmus of the international Arctic Athabaskan Council, which represents indigenous Athabascan governments in the U.S. and Canada, said climate change and economic stability were the most important issues in the region.
Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom of Sweden mused, "I wonder about what the planet would say if she had a seat at the table." She then offered some speculation, "Perhaps our planet would say, 'I've been your best friend since the Industrial Revolution…. I have sent you no invoices but it is about to change.'"
The meeting in Fairbanks marked the end of the U.S.'s two-year rotating role as chairman of the council. Created in 1996, the council largely focuses on international cooperation, environmental protection research and helping local communities in the region develop sustainable economies.
In addition to the U.S. and Sweden, the other council nations are Russia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Iceland. The council also includes six indigenous groups and formal observers from non-Arctic countries.
Several speakers on Thursday noted the peace the Arctic has enjoyed relative to other parts of the world, though participants have also expressed concerns that security could be threatened by Russia's assertive pursuit of oil and gas development in the region. Those concerns have increased amid new tensions between Russia and the United States.
David A. Balton, a deputy assistant secretary of State who has worked on Arctic issues in previous administrations, told reporters on Monday that outside issues between the countries "don't manifest themselves in the work of the Arctic Council. That has remained a very cooperative body."
No part of the world is warming faster than the Arctic.
Summer sea ice regularly shrinks to record lows, coastlines are eroding and wildfires are getting worse. Even the frozen tundra, a critical natural storage tank for carbon emissions, is no longer so frozen. Scientists reported this week that it is warming so rapidly that it now is emitting more carbon than it captures.
The Fairbanks Declaration includes several other references to climate change and taking action to mitigate it or adapt to it. It refers to "reiterating the importance of climate science to our understanding of the changing Arctic region and our activities in the Arctic environment."
Environment groups praised its support for reducing soot (called black carbon) and methane from diesel, oil and gas emissions. The signatories also said they "recognize the gains that some industries have already made in reducing the emissions and intensity of greenhouse gases."
Michael LeVine, a lawyer in Alaska for the nonprofit Oceana, said: "We hope that this declaration is a meaningful step in the evolution of the Trump administration's approach to climate change issues. The United States has the opportunity and obligation to lead efforts to reduce climate impacts and to ensure the long-term sustainability of Arctic Ocean ecosystems."