FAIRBANKS (Alaska) • US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told a meeting of the Arctic Council that the United States will not be rushed into making a decision on climate policy, and that any decision would be firmly in America's interests.
President Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris climate accord but has yet to make a formal decision.
But Mr Tillerson on Thursday endorsed a council closing statement that mentioned the impact of climate change on the region and took note of the Paris agreement.
"We are currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change," Mr Tillerson said at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Fairbanks, Alaska.
"We're not going to rush to make a decision."
His remarks come two days after the White House said Mr Trump would postpone a decision over whether to pull out of the landmark Paris accord until after he meets world leaders at the Group of Seven summit later this month. Mr Tillerson is among those advocating for the US to remain part of the agreement, brokered in 2015 by more than 190 nations.
Mr Trump's efforts to dilute US climate policies have made the country an outlier on the issue and led to calls from major business groups and climate scientists to support the Paris deal.
The US leader's steps to support coal mining and oil drilling in national parks have also triggered alarm among green groups.
The Arctic is warming at a faster pace than any other part of the world, forcing the area's native villagers on coasts and rivers to move to higher ground as permafrost and glaciers melt and seas rise. Global warming also puts stress on wildlife such as walruses and polar bears as they lose their habitat areas.
We are currently reviewing several important policies, including how the Trump administration will approach the issue of climate change. We're not going to rush to make a decision.
MR REX TILLERSON, on whether the US will withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate pact.
The Arctic agreement Mr Tillerson signed with foreign ministers from the other seven nations of the council made only a passing reference to the Paris pact.
The council meets every two years to tackle climate change and other problems facing the North. It comprises Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Singapore, along with several other countries, has observer status in the council.
It noted on Thursday the "entry into force" of the Paris pact and its implementation, and called for global action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. Still, Mr Tillerson's signing of the document surprised a source close to the State Department. "We'd heard... that there would likely be a significant US effort to red line or even remove entirely the Paris and climate language," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mr Tillerson, a former chief executive of ExxonMobil, came around to the agreement after hours of debate following a dinner with council members on Wednesday night, Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen told Reuters.
"He was happy about it; he seemed to be satisfied. We all were because it's a big step," Mr Samuelsen said.
It was unclear how much influence the Arctic agreement, signed late on Wednesday and made public on Thursday, would influence Mr Trump's decision.
Arctic warming is thawing permafrost and melting sea ice, causing damage to infrastructure but also opening up new oil reserves, shipping routes and access to fisheries - intensifying a decades-long race for Arctic resources.
Adding pressure on Mr Trump, scientists from the US and other Arctic nations issued a report ahead of the meeting warning that the warming could lead to trillions of dollars worth of damage to buildings, roads and other infrastructure this century.