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24th Sep 2020

US climate scepticism irks Arctic foreign ministers

  • The presence of all eight Arctic foreign ministers will be interpreted as an important sign of governmental support for continued cooperation in the Arctic (Photo: Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland/Kaisa Sirén)

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is to meet Russia's minister of foreign affairs Sergey Lavrov on Monday (6 May) in Rovaniemi, the main city in Finland's Arctic region, amidst tensions over both climate change and Chinese ambitions in the polar region.

Here they will engage in talks also with the foreign ministers of the six other nations in the Arctic Council, the prime forum for cooperation in the Arctic region.

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On Monday afternoon, Pompeo will deliver a speech on US priorities in the Arctic, a region quickly moving up on the agenda of president Donald Trump's administration and of the Pentagon. The US is counted as an Arctic state because of the state of Alaska.

Prior to the meeting, US reluctance to recognise climate change as a key problem in the Arctic has frustrated negotiations on a joint declaration and on the Arctic Council's first ever longer term strategy, which the ministers were expected to adopt.

Global warming develops more than twice as fast in the Arctic than on the rest of the globe. Several governments in the Arctic, including the five Nordic governments, are keen to boost common efforts to combat climate change and to assist the local Arctic communities and the fragile environment.

The US negotiators, however, have reportedly been adverse to such common climate action. Some observers fear that the foreign ministers will agree only on a meagre status quo or even a diminished set of joint climate change ambitions.

One leading observer of Arctic cooperation, professor Timo Koivurova, who is head of the Arctic Centre of the University of Rovaniemi, shared his frustration with EUobserver. "That is the concern that I have and also with me many of those who are following the Arctic Council for the moment," he said.

"The question is really now whether the US can live with the current level of climate change work. Already, the Arctic Council is doing so much about climate change, whether its scientific assessments or increasing the capacity in the Arctic regions to adapt to climate change consequences and the work on methane and black carbon."

Lavrov critical of US

The ministers, who will meet alongside representatives of the Arctic peoples, gather for a biannual ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council on Tuesday.

US diplomats two years ago helped kick-start negotiations on a common long term strategy, but now other Arctic governments might prefer to postpone adoption of a strategy - rather than bow to US pressure and adopt one weak on climate change ambition.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, speaking with the state wire service TASS at an Arctic conference in St Petersburg in April, said that the US sought to block mention of not just climate change, but also of the Paris Agreement on climate and the United Nations' 2030 sustainable development goals.

An unnamed diplomat involved in the talks last week told the Washington Post that US "indicated its resistance to any mention of climate change whatsoever".

In attempts to secure progress without explicitly mentioning climate change some actors within the Arctic Council have attempted to build consensus instead around pursuit of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but also on this stretch they have met US resistance, Koivurova told EUobserver.

"I have felt it in my own work. First they had problems with the individual goals. I was told not to mention any of the individual goals, but then by the end of the day they asked that the SDGs were not mentioned at all," he says.

US concerns over China in Arctic

In his speech Pompeo will most likely air US concerns not only over Russian military build-up in the Arctic, but also over China's emerging interests in the region.

In late April, the US Department of Defense aired its concerns in its annual report on China's military strength to the US Congress, describing how China is rapidly expanding its scientific research facilities in the Arctic, icebreaker capabilities, commercial investments and diplomatic ties in the region.

"Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks," the report said.

Similar concern over China's growing Arctic presence was also aired in an Arctic strategic outlook published by the US Coast Guard in April.

This report, incidentally, also illustrated US reluctance to recognise climate change.

The term "climate change" did not appear in the 46 page document.

Instead, climate change effects in the Arctic, including mudslides, eroded coastal communities, acidification of the seas, melting permafrost and the receding ice-cover was described as "environmental transformation".

EU status a non-issue

The EU will have no formal say at the meeting in Rovaniemi. The EU Council adopted its first Arctic strategy in 2008, but all attempts to be admitted as a formal observer to the Arctic Council has since failed.

A string of EU member states have been observers to the Arctic Council for years, including the United Kingdom, France, Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Germany, but the EU's ambition to become a formal observer were thwarted - first by Canada and Arctic communities angry about the EU's policies on the sale of seal skin, and then, since the Crimea crisis in 2014, by Russia.

Many within the Arctic Council, however, tend to deal with this as a non-issue, says professor Koivurova: "That is exactly how I see it. In practice, the EU is treated like any other observer," he said.

The EU contributes increasingly to the work of the Arctic Council's scientific working groups, where the bulk of the work of the Arctic Council takes place, and representatives from the EU appear as part of the stable crowd at most Arctic Council gatherings.

No fishing at the North Pole

In Rovaniemi, the Arctic diplomats - if true to habit - will talk little in public of their disagreements on climate change. Instead, they will celebrate the many tangible results of Arctic cooperation.

A moratorium on fishing in the international waters in Arctic Ocean around the North Pole was imposed in 2018, and binding agreements on prevention of oil spills, search and rescue at sea and science cooperation have been adopted.

The Arctic Council's scientific working groups enrich global climate projections and efforts to preserve biodiversity, and still more observer countries like China, Japan, Korea, are being integrated into this work.

Finland, who has chaired the Arctic Council for the last two years, have engaged the World Meteorological Organisation which now contributes to more precise climate projections, and better ice- and weather services in the Arctic.

At a time of increased international tension and sanctions between the US, the EU and Russia following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, the presence of all eight Arctic foreign ministers will be interpreted as an important sign of governmental support for continued cooperation in the Arctic.

In January 2018, some 60 academics from the University of the Arctic Thematic Network on Geopolitics and Security nominated the Arctic Council for the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for its ability to expand cooperation on climate change, community support, biodiversity, environmental protection and so forth even as Russia and the rest of the Arctic states disagree on developments elsewhere.

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