FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson promised nations with a stake in the Arctic that the United States would listen to their concerns about rapid climate change but offered no hint Thursday about whether the Trump administration will back away from past commitments on the issue.
The new U.S. administration is considering where it will come down on global warming, Tillerson said, as the United States completed a two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which had made the risks of climate change a priority under former president Barack Obama.
“We are not going to rush to make a decision. We are going to work to make the right decision for the United States,” Tillerson said.
That was mainly a reference to the upcoming decision on whether the United States will pull out of the landmark international agreement on climate change and reducing carbon emissions known as the Paris accord.
The Trump administration is in turmoil over whether to fulfill the president’s campaign pledge to pull out of the agreement and has postponed a decision until at least late this month.
Climate change is the main topic dominating discussion of the Arctic region, and questions about the future of U.S. leadership on the issue loomed over the meeting.
Other foreign ministers and representatives of indigenous groups avoided criticism of President Trump or Tillerson, although several indigenous speakers stressed the direct impact of a warming region on their lives and traditions.
Although Tillerson is among the Trump Cabinet officials and advisers arguing that the United States has more to gain than lose by remaining a part of the Paris agreement, he could not promise some of the nations most engaged on the issue that Trump will see it that way.
The eight-nation group issued a joint statement that called climate change a pressing issue in the Arctic and took note of the Paris agreement without endorsing it. That was a compromise, as Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini noted.
“The document addresses . . . the impacts of climate change and is a most welcome sign of our will to cooperate,” Soini said.
The joint declaration from the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland stressed “the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”
The Paris climate agreement is considered by many Arctic countries to be a vital first step toward global reckoning with the effects of climate change, and they want to see nations go further. Although that agreement seeks to hold global warming to “well below” an increase of 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the Arctic is expected to warm up far more than that, because of factors that affect sea ice at the top of the world.
The Arctic is the fastest-warming part of the planet; it is heating up roughly twice as rapidly as the rest of the globe. The repercussions include enormous ice loss from the ice sheet of Greenland, which is raising sea levels by as much as a millimeter a year; major retreats in floating sea ice; and the thawing of frozen soil, known as permafrost, which can not only destabilize infrastructure but also releases more carbon into the atmosphere as it warms up, further amplifying global warming.
A growing number of scientists suggest that the changes in the Arctic will have an impact on the globe’s far more populous mid-latitudes by predisposing the atmosphere to extreme weather events.
A working group of the Arctic Council documented signs of climate change in a just-released study, which raised projections for global sea-level rise according to the pace of Arctic melt. That study, “Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic,” was the subject of an informational display Tillerson toured Thursday.
Meanwhile, another new study found that the permafrost of Alaska is already adding substantial volumes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere.
Environmental groups and other opponents of any U.S. retreat from its commitments on climate change are trying to frame the issue as one that affects U.S. national security and economic interests. Activists marched through downtown Fairbanks on Wednesday, the day Tillerson arrived here.
“We want to tell our secretary of state and our country that Alaskans want a clean economy and we want to honor the Paris climate agreement,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner quoted protester Enei Begaye as saying.
The Paris accord is the latest policy decision that pits Trump’s campaign trail “America First” rhetoric against practical concerns for the new administration. If the president keeps the United States in the agreement, even with the goal of reducing its obligations, the decision will follow foreign policy reversals that included his stances on the NATO alliance and Chinese currency manipulation.
The White House postponed a much-anticipated meeting Tuesday that was expected to further air the differences between a conservative camp of administration officials — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt — who want the United States to leave the accord, and a group including Tillerson that argues that the country will have more leverage if it stays within the agreement.
The same day, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump would not reach a decision on whether to stay or go until after the Group of Seven meeting of major industrial democracies in late May, because the president “wants to make sure that he has an opportunity to continue to meet with his team to create the best strategy for this country going forward.”
Nordic countries, including Finland, which takes over leadership of the Arctic Council from the United States, issued a statement this month affirming the Paris agreement and pledging continued leadership on climate issues.
For Canada and Nordic countries deeply concerned about climate change, the Arctic Council meeting is a chance to lobby Tillerson at a moment when the U.S. decision is at a “stalemate,” said Andrew Light, a climate specialist with the World Resources Institute.
“This is an opportunity to make the case that the U.S. needs a seat at the table,” Light said.
Mooney reported from Washington.