On June 1, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, a landmark deal reached by 197 countries in 2015 that seeks to limit global temperature increase to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
“We’re getting out,” Trump said at the news conference. “But we will start to negotiate and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.”
Though expected, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the agreement sent shock waves around the world, with many expressing anger and frustration.
“The science on climate change is perfectly clear: we need more action, not less,” said United Nations environment chief Erik Solheim. “Every nation has a responsibility to act and to act now.”
For those in the Arctic, where climate change is destabilizing coastlines, thawing permafrost and limiting access to food and resources, international cooperation and action is urgently needed. As the United States prepares to pull out, those on the frontline are facing an even more uncertain future.
Arctic Deeply recently spoke with Mike Sfraga, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Polar Initiative and co-director of the University of the Arctic’s Institute for Arctic Policy, about how the U.S. absence from the Paris Agreement will affect climate change mitigation in the Arctic and the U.S.’s relationship with other Arctic nations.
Arctic Deeply: Why is the Paris Agreement so important for the Arctic?
Mike Sfraga: The current accord is important to the Arctic because its focus is to address the issue of climate change and to mitigate the impacts of carbon in the atmosphere and the relative changes that come from increased carbon. The Arctic is warming at twice or more the rate of other places on our planet, and we see that trendline in climate data. What is particularly concerning to me and to many others is that many of our models that we have run have been conservative in their summaries. The Arctic is warming very quickly and although our planet has changed over time, this change is real and it’s rapid and it’s palpable.
As an Alaskan, I see these changes in my own state’s landscape. You can see them throughout the circumpolar north, whether it’s the Arctic Ocean or permafrost melting or degradation of coastline or communities threatened as subsistence patterns change. In my opinion, anything that helps to mitigate and slow the change is better for the planet, and certainly better for the Arctic.
Arctic Deeply: From an international policy perspective, how will the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement affect progress in the Arctic? What challenges will this development bring?
Sfraga: When the United States decides not to participate in the agreement, which has over 190 other countries, we relegate our leadership to others. I would prefer that the United States help to lead an effort that looks at the global survival of our civilization versus doing something on our own. So that’s one. Two, I think it impacts our policy because we’re not at the global table of dialogue. I would have preferred that our policymakers be engaged in not only our own U.S. Arctic policy, but in the policy of others to come up with solutions to what I think is an issue that we all need to address. It’s definitely, in my opinion, not a wise policy choice.
Arctic Deeply: Prior to its withdrawal, the United States signed the Fairbanks Declaration, along with the seven other Arctic states, which stressed the importance of the Paris Agreement. Are there policies that put the U.S. at conflict now? Might we see more tension on the Arctic Council?
Sfraga: I don’t know if there will be tension in the Arctic Council. I think we will have varying opinions. It’s very clear that seven of the eight nations have a clear stance on climate policy, especially in the Fairbanks Declaration, and now the United States has decided to pull out of Paris, which pointedly was in the Arctic Council agreement that the United States signed. I don’t know if there will be conflict. I think there’s going to be differences of opinion and nuanced approaches when climate comes up. The thing with the Arctic Council is that they focus on a lot of environmental issues, so you simply can’t escape the changing climate of the Arctic because many of the working groups are related to the impact of climate on the economic and physical landscape. I think there’s going to be lots of spirited discussion, but I don’t think it’s going to be a confrontation aside from disagreement about how we move forward.
Arctic Deeply: Is there concern in the policy world that the U.S. might start to play a smaller role in the Arctic Council under the Trump administration?
Sfraga: It might play a different role, not a smaller role. There are parts of the agenda that Finland has forwarded that are quite complementary to what the United States tried to do during its chairmanship. For instance, you have the focus on telecommunications, living environments in the Arctic and raising the narrative around the importance of the Arctic. The black carbon issue would be one where we might find some differences with the Arctic Council’s work going forward. There are places where I think the United States will be quite active, but when it comes to how we phrase climate change and to what degree we engage in issues related to a changing climate, I think we may not be as focused or out in front as we were before this administration.
Arctic Deeply: In the absence of U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement, are there are other key policies to keep an eye on?
Sfraga: Several. One in particular is the binding agreement on science and research in the Arctic. The United States and Russia both led this task force that came up with an agreement on conducting research in the Arctic – the free distribution of data and the movement of scientists across regions – that will do nothing but enhance the research agenda for all eight Arctic nations. I would keep a close eye on that because really what we’re talking about here is securing enough data to make informed decisions. If an entity, a person, an administration is not yet convinced that there is change happening at a particular rate, science can inform that. It’s a very good signal as to how engaged the United States will be, going forward, on the Arctic Council.
I would also keep an eye on the United States’ continued discussions on icebreaker capacity and our continued cooperation with the other seven Arctic coastguards. There is another binding agreement on search and rescue that will be something to continue to watch because of the increased shipping.
Another area to watch are any policies related to the Bering Strait and the way in which we monitor shipping. Hopefully we have cooperative agreements with other nations, especially Russia, on search and rescue, on monitoring transport, and on oil spill response and prevention. This is one of the areas within the Arctic Council where we talk to our Russian colleagues quite often. Aside from the space station, the Arctic is one area where we have quite good diplomacy, dialogue and engagement.
Arctic Deeply: Are there any other important aspects to address?
Sfraga: One thing to watch is the maturation of the Arctic Council. For 20 years, it has been an organization that has evolved and done quite good work. It has become the place where the Arctic nations talk about the future of the Arctic. How will it sustain itself going forward? What issues might it involve now? What structures are in place? What does financial longevity look like? And to what degree does the rest of the globe lean on and look to the Arctic Council to address many of the important issues of the Arctic?
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.