In doing so, the Trump administration has demonstrated its cowardly denial that the region is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, putting its own people in harm’s way and damaging relations with allies around the world.
This isn’t the first time this episode has played out. I bore witness to the administration’s self-inflicted embarrassment two years ago while working at the Interior Department. Then, as now, the leader of the free world stood thoroughly diminished while other nations and the people most affected by the climate crisis were forced to face the consequences.
The eight nations of the Arctic Council, established in 1996, take turns chairing the multinational forum, and every two years, as leadership changes, foreign ministers must sign a negotiated ministerial declaration reaffirming the work and ambitions of the council. Since Trump has entered office, that has meant Arctic nations must suffer through absurd negotiations with climate deniers in the White House.
I was involved in those negotiations two years ago, at the conclusion of the U.S. chairmanship of the council. During the U.S. term, the council, led by then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry, was laser-focused on climate change and prepared to deliver a menu of responses. For example, we had developed, with an international team, a climate-change adaptation and resilience strategy that was up for approval by the foreign ministers.
It was not a controversial measure, but because U.S. leadership of the council concluded five months into the new Trump administration, I was one of the many career civil servants attempting to explain to White House staff why climate measures should be approved at all. Trump loyalists with no background in science, the Arctic or diplomacy scrutinized every word of the nonbinding declaration, looking for climate-change language to delete.
It didn’t end there. Once negotiators finalized the declaration, another wave of climate-change insecurity beset the martinets at the White House, and they told then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to demand additional changes just days before the signing ceremony in Fairbanks, Alaska. Those changes? Eliminating or changing language about — you guessed it — climate change and the Paris agreement.
For a multinational consensus body focused on sustainability and the environment, this was unheard of and was deeply embarrassing for career diplomats at the State Department. They scrambled, apologetically, to gain approval from their foreign colleagues. Tempers flared and senior diplomats from Canada, Nordic countries and even Russia privately expressed their disgust with the language ambush.
It was also an insult to the people of the Arctic. In addition to the eight member nations, six indigenous organizations sit at the Arctic Council table, representing the hundreds of thousands of people whose ancestors have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years. Unique among multinational bodies, this direct role gives a voice to indigenous knowledge and priorities.
The indigenous peoples of the Arctic, like the Pacific island states who face inundation from the rise of sea levels, live squarely in the path of dramatic climate impacts. Vulnerable coastal villages in Alaska face the twin threats of vicious storms and coastal erosion as protective sea ice shrinks and permafrost thaws beneath their feet. In a place where store-bought food is expensive and sometimes scarce, subsistence hunters in some areas can no longer safely travel and hunt on thick sea ice.
These people are not running from the threat. They are planning village relocations, using smartphone apps to record environmental changes and find reliable ice routes, testing renewable energy systems that don’t rely upon polluting diesel fuel and exploring technological fixes to food and water security issues. They have shown the world what it looks like to rise up and adapt.
The Trump administration, however, doesn’t seem to care. In attempting to erase mention of the threat, they are erasing the lives at stake and the hardships they have endured due to the ongoing climate crisis.
Soon after the Arctic Council dust-up, the administration reassigned me to an auditing job in an office that collects royalty income from fossil fuel companies. Before resigning my position, I filed a whistleblower complaint in July 2017 alleging that the Trump administration had retaliated against me for speaking out about the dangers of climate change among Alaskan native communities. This new round of international censorship and science denial only confirms that they still have their heads deep in the oil-stained sands of their fossil-fuel-industry donors.
It comforts me to know that the tenacity and ambition of the people of the Arctic endure despite a president who cannot see beyond industry-funded climate disinformation. Even still, they must wonder: How much longer must we wait before we no longer suffer such cowardly denial from our leaders? How long must we stand alone?