Dismay in the far north over Trump's Paris pullout

Tuesday, 27 June 2017, 03:32:12 PM. Optimism about climate action has evaporated, says a Shishmaref teen who served as an Arctic youth ambassador. Foreign ministers from Nordic nations share similar sentiments.

Less than two years ago, when Esau Sinnok traveled to Paris from the tiny and rapidly eroding Inupiat village of Shishmaref in northwestern Alaska, he had reason for optimism.

Sinnok, then a high school senior and one of 22 Arctic Youth Ambassadors appointed by the Obama administration to represent the United States during its two-year Arctic Council chairmanship, carried a message from his village that he believes was heard in Paris. There, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the United States and other nations signed an agreement to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming.

dismay-in-the-far-north-over-trumps-paris-pullout photo 1 Esau Sinnok lives in Shishmaref. (Courtesy U.S. Department of Interior)

"It felt good that they achieved that … having all those big nations, over 190 nations, signing onto the agreement," Sinnok said.

Now, with President Donald Trump on Thursday announcing that the United States will pull out of the agreement, much of that optimism is gone, said Sinnok, now 19 and a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"It just shows us that the current administration doesn't really care about us, about Native people, about Alaska, about climate change," he said. "This really tells us what they think about us."

The situation is particularly devastating for imperiled Shishmaref, which has become an icon of Arctic warming, Sinnok said.

There, and in other far-north indigenous communities, thawing permafrost, newly open waters lacking sea ice and bigger storm surges have combined to eat away large sections of shorelines, topple buildings and put residents at risk.

"If we don't act on climate change now, what will be of Shishmaref? What will be of Newtok? What will be of Kivalina?" said Sinnok, naming three Alaska villages planning complete relocations to escape dramatic erosion and climate-related flooding.

Also dismayed by Trump's decisions are some of the foreign ministers who attended the Fairbanks ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council and had pleaded to put the Paris commitments into action.

"The US decision to leave the #ParisAgreement is a decision to leave humanity's last chance of securing our children's future on this planet," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said on Twitter.

"US pulling out of the #ParisAgreement is deeply saddening. #Norway will continue to fight climate change — what is a shared moral obligation," Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende‏ said on Twitter.

On the same day as Trump's announcement, Wallstrom, Brende and the foreign ministers of the other Nordic nations sent him a letter pleading for the United States to remain in the Paris agreement.

"We must reduce global warming. The effects are already visible in all parts of our planet. It is of crucial importance that all parties stick to the Paris Agreement," they said in the letter.

[U.S. states, major companies break with Trump's decision to exit the climate deal]

Trump's decision got qualified support from at least one far-north public official.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a statement, appeared to agree with Trump's decision, though he also said climate change is real.

"The commitments made by the last administration significantly disadvantaged the U.S. economy and American families and workers relative to other nations, especially China, which was not required to begin reducing emissions until 2030 under its Paris commitments," Sullivan said in a statement released late Thursday. "In Alaska, we are clearly seeing the effects of a changing climate. However, a top down approach from the United Nations is not the best way to reduce emissions, protect the environment, and grow our economy. Going forward, we need to focus on a true all-of-the-above energy strategy to include clean-burning Alaska natural gas, which if exported to countries in Asia would positively reduce global emissions."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not have an immediate statement.

At the Fairbanks ministerial meeting, she said she was glad that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed on to a declaration acknowledging climate change problems in the Arctic, the role of carbon emissions in climate change and the way the Paris agreement would curb emissions.

But Murkowski declined then to endorse the agreement or a pullout from it.

"The term that I have used is I've been agnostic on Paris. I haven't said whether I think we should be in or whether we should be out," she told reporters in Fairbanks on May 11. "I think what we need to consider is how we can be most effective in the discussions as they relate to climate change."

Though Trump has famously called climate change a hoax, and though his administration has slashed climate-science work, deleted information from websites and reversed several Obama-era environmental protections, his stance on the Paris agreement was still unclear at the Fairbanks ministerial meeting, where the United States handed over chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Finland following its two-year term.

Sinnok, who also attended the Fairbanks event, said on Thursday he had expected the Trump pullout — and he could tell that others from around the Arctic were worried about such an outcome.

"Every single nation and every single person in that room was talking about the effect of climate change and how we need to work on it," he said. "Every single table talked about it, right in front of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson."

In the absence of U.S. government leadership on climate, locals should take action, Sinnok said.

"It's really good to be part of grass-roots organizing," he said. "We're right here right now. We do still have a voice."

Gov. Bill Walker, in a statement, said Alaska's climate work will continue despite the Trump pullout decision.

"Alaska is the United States' only Arctic state. In spite of the United States' withdrawal from the Paris climate accord today, Alaska will continue to work to boost national defense and security measures for our 6,640 miles of Alaskan coastline, increase resilience for Arctic communities, and provide energy leadership for the nation," Walker said in the statement, which did not explicitly endorse or criticize Trump's action.

"Alaskans know that our landscape is changing at an accelerating pace. We are experiencing social and economic upheaval caused by shrinking sea ice, rising sea level, increasing intensity of storms, and increasing coastal erosion. Alaska communities such as Shishmaref, Kivalina, and Newtok are literally washing into the ocean," he said.

Grass-roots action on climate includes work through the Local Environmental Observer program created by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The LEO program collects on-the-ground information from citizens about environmental conditions — much of them related to climate change — and analyzes it with the assistance of experts from agencies, universities and research institutions.

On Thursday, the program announced that new LEO network hubs have been created in Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories, in Victoria in British Columbia and in Baja California in Mexico. The new hubs will draw in new sets of scientific experts who will be able to answer questions posed by Canadian and Mexican local observers, said Mike Brubaker, community environmental and health director at ANTHC.

Brubaker, who founded the LEO program, said it was created as a "grass-roots response" to concerns about environmental and climate change. Observers were drawn to the network "because they were located in isolated places that have severe impacts and they wanted to do something about it," he said.

Work to document climate change will continue, Brubaker said.

"People all over in Alaska and the Arctic have been sending this signal over and over again," he said.

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