FAIRBANKS — As Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson heads to Alaska on Wednesday for talks on Arctic issues, he finds himself in climate policy limbo, preparing for a meeting at which global warming will be front and center yet representing an administration that is still on the fence about fighting it.
Tillerson's appearance Thursday morning at a meeting of the Arctic Council, with the foreign ministers of Russia, Canada and the five other nations with Arctic territory, is expected to be taken up largely by formalities. Officials will most likely approve a measure to improve scientific cooperation in the region, and Tillerson will turn over the rotating chairmanship of the intergovernmental organization, which the United States has held for two years, to Finland.
Tillerson is also expected to hold one-on-one talks with some of his counterparts, although an anticipated meeting between him and the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, will now take place earlier on Wednesday in Washington before the men fly separately to Alaska.
If there is to be drama in Fairbanks, it may come in the form of the traditional closing statement, and how much it refers to global warming broadly or specifically to the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, in which the United States and most other nations agreed to reduce their carbon emissions. Negotiations have been continuing for weeks on the language of the statement, which is approved by consensus.
The meeting comes at a time of rapid and extensive environmental change in the region, which scientists say is largely linked to climate change. Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere, sea ice is hitting record lows and permafrost is thawing. A new study this week suggests that Alaska's vast tundra is now releasing more carbon dioxide than it stores, adding to the warming effect in the atmosphere.
The changes in the Arctic have the potential to lead to more economic development amid the region's fragile ecosystems, and to new security concerns. Already, Russia has announced it will begin shipping natural gas from an Arctic port in Siberia this fall using special icebreaking tankers, and the Russian military recently completed a base on Franz Josef Land in the northern Barents Sea.
Scientists and policy experts say that given all the changes, real and potential, it is all the more crucial that the Trump administration remain in the Paris accord.
"This ministerial is convening as the Arctic is unraveling at an accelerating rate," said Rafe Pomerance, a former State Department official in the Clinton administration and the chairman of Arctic 21, an advocacy group. "Secretary of State Tillerson should take the message from the Arctic to the White House to persuade the administration of the urgency of policy to slow the warming of the Arctic."
There has been an ongoing debate within the Trump administration about whether to remain in the Paris accord. President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has given mixed signals about remaining. White House meetings to discuss the subject have been delayed several times — most recently on Tuesday — and no decision is imminent.
Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has acknowledged that the climate is changing and is said to be among those in the administration urging that the United States remain committed to the Paris agreement.
Since it was founded two decades ago, the Arctic Council has focused extensively on environmental and sustainability issues. One of its working groups, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, released a report last month summarizing conditions in the region, concluding that "the Arctic will experience significant changes during this century even if greenhouse gas emissions are stabilized globally at a level lower than today's."
The council is specifically excluded from considering military issues, and even on environmental issues it has little power or authority. "It's kind of up to the Arctic governments to decide what to do," said Fran Ulmer, the chairwoman of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which advises the government on research needs in the region.
During the United States' two-year chairmanship, President Barack Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, made climate change issues in the region a priority.
"They went very far in promoting the Paris climate agreement and encouraging the Arctic countries to join in the efforts," said Aleksi Harkonen, Finland's senior Arctic official.
In bringing that chairmanship to an end, Tillerson could signal an abrupt change in U.S. policy toward the council, and toward the Arctic, although policy experts view either move as unlikely.
"Different administrations pay more or less attention" to the region, Ulmer said. "I don't imagine that Tillerson will use this as an opportunity to articulate some kind of different policy toward the Arctic," she added.
"Climate change has been an ongoing topic of interest for the Arctic Council for many chairmanships," David Balton, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said on Monday in a telephone call with reporters. "And I foresee that it will continue to be one of the things the council focuses on."
But the Fairbanks Declaration, as the final statement will be known, may not contain all the language that other member nations would want.
Harkonen said that during negotiations the United States had demanded that there be no mention of the Paris agreement, since the issue had not been resolved at the White House. "But there's good substance in the declaration anyway," he said.
Balton told reporters that the final declaration "will have a lot of material about climate change in the Arctic."
"Anybody who spent time in or studying the Arctic knows that the region is warming, that climate change is a real issue here," he added.
Harkonen said that even if the United States was to somehow reduce its commitment to the council and Arctic issues, the organization's work would continue. The focus will remain on climate change during Finland's two-year chairmanship.
"Of course we would be disappointed," he said. "But we would continue with the implementation of the program. And we would have the support of everybody else."