FAIRBANKS (Alaska) • As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson headed to Alaska for talks on Arctic issues, he found himself in climate policy limbo, preparing for a meeting at which global warming will be front and centre, yet representing an administration that is still on the fence about fighting it.
Mr Tillerson's appearance this morning at a meeting of the Arctic Council, with the foreign ministers of Russia, Canada and the five other nations with Arctic territory, is expected to be taken up largely by formalities.
Officials will most likely approve a measure to improve scientific cooperation in the region, and Mr Tillerson will turn over the rotating chairmanship of the intergovernmental organisation, which the US has held for two years, to Finland.
If there is to be drama in Fairbanks, it may come in the form of the traditional closing statement, and how much it refers to global warming broadly, or specifically to the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord, in which the United States and most other nations agreed to reduce their carbon emissions.
Negotiations have been continuing for weeks on the language of the statement, which is approved by consensus.
The meeting comes at a time of rapid and extensive environmental change in the region, which scientists say is largely linked to climate change. Arctic temperatures are rising twice as fast as elsewhere, sea ice is hitting record lows and permafrost is thawing.
A new study this week suggests that Alaska's vast tundra is now releasing more carbon dioxide than it stores, adding to the warming effect in the atmosphere.
Singapore an observer state at meeting
Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office, Ministry of Manpower and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Sam Tan is in Fairbanks, Alaska, to attend the 10th Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting.
This is the second time that Singapore is attending the ministerial meeting since becoming an observer state of the council in 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) noted in a statement on Tuesday.
Mr Tan, who is accompanied by MFA officials, will meet key members of the council during his two-day visit, the ministry added.
The changes in the Arctic have the potential to lead to more economic development amid the region's fragile ecosystems, and to new security concerns. Already, Russia has announced it will begin shipping natural gas from an Arctic port in Siberia later this year, using special icebreaking tankers, and the Russian military recently completed a base on Franz Josef Land in the northern Barents Sea.
Scientists and policy experts say that given all the changes, real and potential, it is all the more crucial for the Trump administration to remain in the Paris accord.
"This ministerial is convening as the Arctic is unravelling at an accelerating rate," said Mr Rafe Pomerance, a State Department official in the Clinton administration and the chairman of Arctic 21, an advocacy group. "Secretary of State Tillerson should take the message from the Arctic to the White House to persuade the administration of the urgency of policy to slow the warming of the Arctic."
There has been an ongoing debate within the Trump administration about whether to remain in the Paris accord. President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has given mixed signals about remaining. White House meetings to discuss the subject have been delayed several times - most recently on Tuesday - and no decision is imminent.
Mr Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has acknowledged that the climate is changing and is said to be among those in the administration urging that the US remain committed to the Paris agreement.
Mr Aleksi Harkonen, Finland's senior Arctic official, said that during negotiations the US had demanded there be no mention of the Paris agreement in the Fairbanks Declaration, as the final statement of the Arctic Council meeting will be known.
But, he said, even if the US was to somehow reduce its commitment to the council and Arctic issues, the organisation's work would continue.
The focus will remain on climate change during Finland's two-year chairmanship.
"Of course we would be disappointed," he said. "But we would continue with the implementation of the programme. And we would have the support of everybody else."