Washington keeps climate change out of Arctic Council closing statement

For the first time in history, an Arctic Council ministerial ended today without a joint declaration — capping off weeks of reports that the document was in jeopardy because of U.S. stonewalling on mentioning climate language in the final document.

'The result could have been much worse,' says Finnish foreign minister

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boards a plane at Rovaniemi Airport in Rovaniemi, Finland, after taking part in the 11th Ministerial Meeting of the Arctic Council, Tuesday May 7, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/The Associated Press)

For the first time in history, an Arctic Council ministerial ended today without a joint declaration — capping off weeks of reports that the document was in jeopardy because of U.S. stonewalling on mentioning climate language in the final document.

Instead, a one-page Joint Ministerial Statement was released. In it, the Arctic nations pledged themselves to supporting the "[…}well-being of the inhabitants of the Arctic, to sustainable development and to the protection of the Arctic environment."

The statement made no mention of climate change or the Paris climate accord. Over a dozen members of Arctic Indigenous organizations and various Arctic state delegations told CBC News the omission was due to U.S. objections.

The Arctic Council is an intergovernmental forum run on consensus and made up of the eight northern nations, including Canada, and six Arctic Indigenous groups, known as permanent participants. On Tuesday, Finland handed the council's two-year rotating chairmanship over to Iceland.

Finland's Foreign Minister Timo Soini wouldn't mention the U.S. by name when speaking to the press after the ministerial, but said negotiations went down to the wire Tuesday morning before an agreement was reached on a compromise statement, two-and-a-half hours before the plenary opened.

"It is clear that climate issues (are viewed) differently from the different capitals. That cannot be denied," Soini said. "But the joint ministerial statement, it is also very important to show that the eight foreign ministers can agree on some core issues.

"All the problems and disagreements can't be solved in the one ministerial, but the main thing is everybody was here ... The result could have been much worse."

Freeland silent on joint declaration

During her address at Tuesday's ministerial meeting, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said nothing about the declaration upset, but stressed the importance of working with Indigenous peoples on environmental questions.

"We must all draw on the wisdom and experience of the six Indigenous permanent participant organizations here today to help us build resilience to climate change to protect the North," Freeland said. She also announced increased funding of up to $10 million for the continued participation of Canadian Indigenous groups in the Arctic Council.

Global Affairs Canada and the office of Canada's Foreign Minister did not respond to requests for comment on the lack of a joint declaration at the ministerial.

Only Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, and most of the Arctic Council's six Indigenous organizations addressed the issue head-on in their speeches.

'We're in a crisis situation'

Canadian Bill Erasmus is chair of the Arctic Athabaskan Council, which represents American and Canadian Athabaskan First Nations governments. He minced no words during his speech at the ministerial over the lack of a declaration.

"The permanent participants usually have the opportunity to fully participate in the drafting and development of an Arctic Council declaration, where our views are fully endorsed and part of the bigger picture," Erasmus said, adding the closing statement was drafted without Indigenous participation. "(That is) not the common practice of the Arctic Council."

"Our people from the North feel that the big changes that are happening are because of events outside of our territory," said Bill Erasmus, international chair of the Arctic Athabaskan Council. "People in southern Canada have to take responsibility for what is occurring."

In an interview with CBC News after the meeting, Erasmus said he was "disappointed" by the outcome of the meeting.

"(The statement ) doesn't go far enough and it's not from us," he said. "We're in a crisis situation. (Climate change) is real. And it's man made. And it can be prevented.

"We all have responsibilities and we have to have a committed effort so young people can have a future."

U.S. plays spoiler

Typically a sleepy, ceremonious affair, this Arctic Council ministerial saw the U.S. play spoiler by scuttling the declaration. It also saw U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo deliver a speech that took shots at the Arctic policies of Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. has been at odds with the rest of the Arctic community over climate issues since President Donald Trump announced his country's withdrawal from the Paris climate deal in 2017, a move blasted by other Arctic Council member states and something that continues to be sticking point in bilateral meetings with Arctic Council nations.

Timo Koivurova, director and research professor at the Arctic Centre at Finland's University of Lapland, said he believes in the resilience of the forum but the environmental policy of President Trump presents it with a serious challenge.

"The majority of work in the Arctic Council stems either directly or indirectly from climate change, and if the U.S. doesn't even want to have references to climate change in the declaration, that's going to mean very difficult years ahead."

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn@cbc.ca