Science cooperation promised in newly signed Arctic Council agreement

The United States, Russia and the six other Arctic nations pledged to cooperate on science across the circumpolar north, signing a binding agreement Thursday to remove barriers and enhance exchanges between scientists working across borders in the far north.

The document was signed in Fairbanks at the Arctic Council's biennial ministerial meeting, the capstone event in the two-year U.S. chairmanship. It promises to break down barriers that have slowed cross-border research, made studies more costly and left research, at times, inconsistent in different jurisdictions.

It is the third binding agreement ever reached by the 20-year-old Arctic Council, though it will need a follow-up treaty to go into force. Previous council binding agreements established cooperative relationships on search and rescue and oil-spill response.

The agreement signed Thursday will ease "the movement of scientists, scientific equipment and, importantly, data sharing" across the Arctic, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the ministerial meeting.

The Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation was led by the United States and Russia and is considered a bright spot in a relationship that has been sorely strained in recent years over Russia's actions in Ukraine, its Syria policies and human rights record. It was in the works for several years, but the timing is now awkward.

It comes as furor is mounting over Russian influence on the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and questions about the president's relationship to Russia prior to his election.

Two days ago, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into the connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.

And, council events have been overshadowed by Trump's environmental policies.

[US ends Arctic Council chairmanship with reluctance on climate action]

Rapid climate warming has transformed the far north, creating some dire problems that permeate nearly all Arctic issues and the council's work. But Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax and his administration is seeking to dismantle U.S. government efforts to address it, including federally funded climate science.

Still, council members have been emphasizing the science agreement's positive aspects. It demonstrates how the Arctic is a region of peace and how the council works to promote the common good, despite disputes elsewhere in the world, including among its members, they said.

"It's good and it's important. It's another example of the Arctic Council fostering international agreements," said Margaret Williams, U.S. managing director of the Arctic program at the World Wildlife Fund, one of the designated council observers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a day after a controversial Oval Office meeting with Trump and Tillerson, referred to the council's role as a conflict-free zone.

"Russia has been doing its best to ensure that the Arctic develops as a region of peace, stability and cooperation," he said in interpreted remarks to the ministerial meeting.

But one well-known Russian-born Arctic scientist said he is skeptical about the real-world effects of the science agreement and "nice words" from the Russian government.

Vladimir Romanovsky of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, one of the world's top permafrost scientists, said Russia has been the source of the problems for Arctic scientists. The Putin regime is increasingly repressive, and the science agreement is unlikely to counter that, he said.

"It may change some protocols, some requirements for paperwork. It may make it easier. But it will not make easier this whole underground movement," Romanovsky said.

"It could be very great on paper. But in reality …" he said, trailing off. "The greatest paper, the greatest thing on paper is the Russian constitution. It's great. But you see what they do — they just ignore it."

Romanovsky has had his own brush with Russian repression. In 1997, he and UAF colleague Larry Hinzman, in Yakutia to work on permafrost and hydrology work, were detained by authorities.

"We were not formally arrested. But we were kind of, how do you say, house detained. And we were interrogated by KGB," he said. "It was pretty scary."

Romanovsky, who holds both U.S. and Russian citizenship, travels at least once a year to work on his permafrost research. He is scheduled to travel again in the next couple of weeks.

Some other scientists have been intimidated and are reluctant to work in Russia, he said. So far, that is not the case for him. "But it may change any time," he said.

[Russia's foreign minister visits Lend-Lease Monument in Fairbanks]

Even within U.S. borders, meanwhile, climate scientists are facing new hostilities. The Trump administration has removed climate information from several government websites and sought to slash or eliminate federal spending on climate research, though Congress so far has not gone along with those plans.

Rafe Pomerance, a former State Department official who now chairs a network of climate science and advocacy groups, criticized the Trump administration as hostile to scientists.

In a news conference Wednesday, Pomerance cited comments made in March by Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as evidence.

"He said climate science is a waste of money. Now think about it. That is not a serious comment," Pomerance said.