US dismisses climate change at Arctic Council Summit: Pompeo says melting sea ice brings ‘new opportunities for trade’

The U.S. objections come as the Arctic just experienced its five warmest years on record, and is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

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LKS 20190404 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press conference during the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting at the State Department in Washington, DC on April 4, 2019. LEHTIKUVA / AFP Mandel Ngan

For the first time since it was founded in 1996, the Arctic Council didn’t release a joint declaration outlining its priorities after a summit in Rovaniemi, Finland Monday and Tuesday. The reason? The insistence by the U.S. that the statement not mention climate change or the Paris agreement designed to combat it, The New York Times reported.

The U.S. objections come as the Arctic just experienced its five warmest years on record, and is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

“The others felt they could not water down climate change sentences,” Finnish delegate Timo Koivurova told BBC News.

Instead, the council, which consists of eight Arctic nations, as well as indigenous communities in the region, issued a brief statement pledging its “commitment to maintain peace, stability and constructive co-operation in the Arctic,” as Time reported.

The council, whose members include the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland, meets every two years to discuss environmental and economic issues in the region, BBC News explained. Its statements are agreed to by consensus, which means any member country can block them, according to The New York Times.

Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, whose country has chaired the council for the last two years with a focus on climate change, told the press he didn’t want to “name and blame anybody” and called the summit’s outcome “good enough,” according to Time. However, in other statements he made it clear that the U.S. was isolated in its climate denial.

“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,” Soini said in a statement reported by The New York Times.

However, while the U.S. blocked the council from mentioning climate change, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not shy away from putting a positive spin on its impacts: the melting of Arctic sea ice.

“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” he said in a speech Monday reported by BBC News. “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 become the 21st-Century Suez and Panama Canals.”

Scientists and environmentalists, on the other hand, have warned that a reduction in Arctic sea ice could harm Arctic wildlife like polar bears and marine life, as well as contribute to sea level rise.

Several delegates at the summit did speak of the negative impact climate change was having on their communities.

“The effect of climate change is being felt most acutely here,” Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, according to The New York Times.

Representatives of indigenous communities spoke in the most detail of how climate impacts like wildfires, coastal erosion and melting ice and permafrost were altering the lives of people who had lived in the region for generations.

“We recognize that climate change is real,” Arctic Athabaskan Council Chairman Bill Erasmus told Time, expressing regret that the council had not arrived at a detailed statement. “Climate change is man-made, and our elders tell us that we are clearly in trouble.”

Pompeo mentioned the importance of protecting the Arctic’s “fragile ecosystem” in remarks Tuesday, and an anonymous senior U.S. official said that the country could be committed to the environment without using particular words.

“Just because you don’t have a certain phrase in it, you can’t infer that the United States has taken a position that is anti-environment,” the official said, as Time reported.

But a commitment to increased shipping could be at odds with environmental protections. Scientists have warned that more frequent transport in the Arctic could increase pollution, BBC News said.