A 'majority of nations' agree on Arctic climate; U.S. is again the exception

Updated: United States rejects joint statement over 'climate change' references

Monday was quite a day for the United States. The Trump administration all but ignored a comprehensive scientific study on the mass extinction of plants and animals caused by humans and climate change.

Then Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo was in Rovaniemi, Finland, at the Arctic Council where he spoke about the challenges in the Arctic in largely economic and military terms. “This is America’s moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic’s future. Because far from the barren backcountry,” he said, “the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance. It houses 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30 percent of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources. Fisheries galore.”

And the challenges of climate change? “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Pompeo said. “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could come before – could come the 21s century Suez and Panama Canals.” Most of his speech was a warning against increasing Russian and Chinese activity in the region.

The Trump administration’s position on the Arctic raises so many questions about Indigenous governance (and knowledge). How in the world can a government set a course to make money on a changing climate all the while avoiding a strategy to deal with its consequences?

Indeed: Normally the nations that make up the Arctic Council -- including six Indigenous permanent members representing the Aleut, Inuit, Athabaskan, Gwich’in, Sami, and Russian Indigenous Peoples of the North -- come up with a shared statement about the challenges of climate change. Not this year. The meeting ended with a joint statement that only called for a continued “commitment to maintain the Arctic as a region of peace, stability and constructive cooperation.”

The United States refused to sign a ministerial statement because of wording that climate change was a "serious threat to the Arctic." It was the first time a declaration had been cancelled since the Arctic Council was formed in 1996.

However the outgoing chairman of the council, Timo Soini, foreign minister of Finland, did take up the cause of climate change. He issued a statement that “a majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience, and welcomed the outcomes of the UNFCCC COP24 in Katowice, including the Paris agreement ...”

The sentence was kind. It should have said instead of “a majority” that all but the United States agreed on issues of climate change.

Even in a direct interview with a Finnish newspaper, Pompeo would not use the words “climate change.” He said “we can call it whatever we like, but I shared some of the data in the speech. The United States is kicking it when it comes to getting its CO2 down. I mean, compare it to China, compare it to Russia, compare it, frankly, to many European nations, each of whom signed the Paris agreement.”

But in the Arctic “kicking it” must not include the very sea lanes the secretary was eager to exploit. The Arctic is already warming faster than the rest of the planet. A report by the Council on Foreign Relations said: “Between 1979 and 2015, the Arctic sea ice extent — the surface area of the ocean covered by sea ice — decreased by 4.7 percent per decade and the thickness of sea ice dwindled by 10 to 15 percent. Even if global temperature rises by less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Arctic could see a sea ice–free summer at least once a decade. Decreased sea ice allows for additional human activity in the Arctic; this in turn exacerbates the damage to the Arctic ecosystem. Decreasing sea ice and permafrost — as a result of which more fresh water enters the Arctic Ocean—can change weather and climate conditions in other parts of the globe.”

All of the eight nations in the Arctic Council did reaffirm its support for Indigenous participation in the international body (something other world organizations ought to try) and reaffirmed the principle of consultation.

And Secretary Pompeo in his remarks made a mention of Indigenous people as being a part of the place. “Indigenous peoples have lived in the Arctic for generations, well before there was an America to speak of,” he said. But nothing about consultation, or more important, governance.

The economic boom that the secretary wants will not happen without significant contributions from the Arctic’s Indigenous people and that will require free, prior, and informed consent.

Yet in the oddest portion of the speech, Pompeo referred to Indigenous people by asking: “Do we want Arctic nations broadly, or Indigenous communities specifically, to go the way of former government in Sri Lanka or Malaysia, ensnared by debt and corruption?” What does that mean? We do not know. Indian Country Today will reach out to the State Department for a clarification.

See related: Unfolding disaster: Millions of species face extinction 

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Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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