Foreign ministers avert ‘major political problem’ as Russia and U.S. play nicely on Arctic, climate …

OTTAWA — Canada and other Arctic nations were pleasantly surprised this week when Donald Trump’s representative signed a joint statement acknowledging the Paris climate agreement.

A Thursday meeting of the Arctic Council in Fairbanks, Alaska could’ve been decidedly chilly — investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, for instance, cast a sizeable shadow — but talks were relatively warm and co-operative.

“Once again, the Arctic Council survived a major political problem,” said John Higginbotham, a senior fellow at Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. “The problem, this time, was around how would the anti-multilateral, anti-climate change position of the Trump administration affect their positions in the Arctic Council.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who chaired the meeting, “reaffirmed their interest in the Arctic Council, which is very good,” Higginbotham said.

“It’s kind of a success for the rest of the members of the Arctic Council to have again shaped the U.S. position in a more favourable way towards the Paris accords and climate change. But I wouldn’t expect it will be reflected in any change of the U.S.’s domestic policies,” he added.

The agreement, signed early in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s mandate, aspires to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Canada and the U.S., under Barack Obama, both ratified the deal in November, but observers are skeptical the Trump administration will follow through.

Among the causes of concern for Paris agreement proponents: a couple of weeks ago, the Environmental Protection Agency — facing huge potential cuts under Trump — archived its page on climate change, replacing it with one that says “we are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator (Scott) Pruitt.”

“Canada is very pleased that Paris, the Paris agreement, is in (Thursday’s) declaration,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said in a phone call with reporters Thursday evening. “We are strong supporters of Paris. We know that climate change is having a powerful impact,” .

“We got to a very good place on climate change in this agreement. … I do want to acknowledge the strong and positive role (Tillerson) played holding the chair in all eight Arctic countries getting to a public statement, the public declaration that we were all able to sign, which includes a very clear recognition of the Paris agreement.”

The statement also notes “with concern” the Arctic is warming at “more than twice the rate of the global average” and reiterates “the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”

Tillerson had to “put himself out on a limb” to agree to acknowledging Paris, since all the other Arctic states were already on board, said Heather Exner-Pirot, an Arctic expert who attended the summit with a press credential.

But he did come on side, though the language was massaged into less of a formal commitment — the states simply “note” Paris.

“Tillerson was actually really good,” said Exner-Pirot. Foreign ministers had the opportunity to chat with expert working groups for part of the schedule Thursday, and Tillerson chatted with more people than any of the other ministers did, she said, including Freeland.

“Tillerson was really the only one that … made the effort,” she said. “(He) asked thoughtful questions and listened to the answers.”

The American and Russian delegations co-operated well together, she added. The agreement on Arctic science signed all Council members signed Thursday was spearheaded jointly by the U.S. and Russia. It is the third legally-binding agreement to come out of the Council’s two decades of activity.

Higginbotham said it was interesting, too, that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said in his statement Thursday he regretted meetings of the countries’ military chiefs of staff had ended. These, complementary to but not formally connected to the Arctic Council, stopped occurring after Russia annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Lavrov’s mention signals Russians “clearly would like” more cooperation on security.

Finland took over from the U.S. as chair of the council Thursday. It’s expected the Finns will push for a Helsinki summit featuring U.S. president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

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