U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (seated right) and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski pose with Nulato Chief Mickey Stickman at an Arctic Council event in Fairbanks, Alaska.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (seated right) and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski pose with Nulato Chief Mickey Stickman at an Arctic Council event in Fairbanks, Alaska.

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA - As the seven other Arctic Council member nations called on the U.S. to remain a steady partner in efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his counterparts the Trump administration has not yet made a decision on its policies on the issue.

Tillerson, a former ExxonMobile CEO, spoke to the plenary session about U.S. policy on climate change going forward.

“We’re not going to rush to make a decision. We’re going to work to make the right decision for the United States,” he said. “The Arctic Council will continue to be an important platform as we deliberate on these issues.”

Chairmanship to Finland

At Thursday’s meeting in Fairbanks, Tillerson recognized the Arctic Council as an indispensable forum for cooperation and affirmed that the United States will continue to be an active member as it transfers chairmanship of the council to Finland.

Issues of great concern, he noted, are advancing the welfare and living conditions of Arctic communities, recognizing each country’s strategic interests in the Arctic, and ensuring vigilance in protecting the fragile environment.

Tillerson passed a birchwood gavel to Finland’s Foreign Minister Timo Soini, ending two years of the U.S. chairing the council.

Soini made clear Finland intends to keep the focus on climate change, saying it is the driving force behind unprecedented changes in the Arctic region, with the melting of sea ice and the thawing of the Arctic permafrost.

The Finn official said the Paris Agreement is the cornerstone of global efforts to slow the impact of climate change, and said long-term strategic planning is important for the Arctic region.

A few hundred people chanted slogans and made spee
A few hundred people chanted slogans and made speeches to protest the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Fairbanks, Alaska, May 10, 2017. High-level officials from the world's eight Arctic nations, including Tillerson, are meeting in Alaska amid concerns about the future of the sensitive region after President Trump called for more oil drilling and development.

Balancing jobs, environment

Several of the foreign ministers said their goal remains to strike a balance between protecting the fragile Arctic environment while preserving and creating more jobs.

Sweden Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said she wondered what the planet might say if it had a seat at the table at the meeting.

Wallstrom noted the Arctic Sea has long acted as a cooling agent for the rest of the planet, where temperatures last year were the hottest on record for a third year in a row, researchers reported. She warned the costs are coming due, with scientists estimating the cumulative costs of climate change in the Arctic at $90 trillion by the end of this century.

Indigenous fight for survival

Trimble Gilbert, the traditional chief of Arctic Village, Alaska, opened the plenary session to the sounds of indigenous drums and chants. He said indigenous people are fighting for the very survival of their way of life, and their young people have to be able to hunt and fish for their food.

Both Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the Arctic Council meeting, as did the foreign ministers of Greenland, Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland.

Tillerson and Lavrov did not have a bilateral meeting in Fairbanks; they met in Washington Wednesday, amid the fallout over President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.