Arctic nations renewed calls for the world to address global warming, but US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the United States will not rush to make a decision on its policies.
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 declaration. However, he cautioned that the administration of President Donald Trump is reviewing several important policies, including how it will approach 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."
Tillerson was speaking on Thursday in Fairbanks, Alaska, at a meeting of the Arctic Council, an advisory group made up of eight Arctic nations and indigenous groups.
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.
Tillerson said the council will continue to be an important platform as the Trump administration deliberates.
Trump has said little about Arctic policy, but he has taken steps to put US Arctic Ocean waters back in play for petroleum drilling.
Sweden hopeful of US intent
Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs Margot Wallstrom said she walked away from a private conversation with Tillerson hopeful of the US 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 said. "And I think that sounds reasonable to do so."
The worst-case scenario feared by some would be that Tillerson would use the Alaska gathering to announce US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
"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 has chaired the council for the past two years. The US 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.
Agreement on scientific cooperation
Tillerson at the close of the meeting turned the gavel over 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's arrival in Fairbanks was greeted by protesters who denounced the presence of the former president of Exxon Mobil Corporation.
After the rally, the protesters marched behind a sign reading, "Welcome to the front line of climate change," to the building where the Arctic Council welcoming event was being held.