ROVANIEMI, Finland (Reuters) - The United States has refused to sign an agreement on challenges in the Arctic due to discrepancies over climate change wording, diplomats said on Tuesday, jeopardising cooperation in the polar region at the sharp edge of global warming.
With Arctic temperatures rising at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, the melting ice is creating potential new shipping lanes and has opened much of the world’s last untapped reserves of oil and gas to commercial exploitation .
A meeting of eight nations bordering the Arctic in Rovaniemi in Finland on Tuesday was supposed to frame a two-year agenda to balance the challenge of global warming with sustainable development of mineral wealth.
But sources with knowledge of the discussions said the United States balked at signing a final declaration as it disagreed with wording that climate change was a serious threat to the Arctic.
It was the first time a declaration had been cancelled since the Arctic Council was formed in 1996.
Instead, in a brief statement, ministers from the United States, Canada, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Iceland repeated their commitment to sustainable development and the protection of the Arctic environment.
Except for the United States, other nations had wanted to go further, participants said.
“A majority of us regarded climate change as a fundamental challenge facing the Arctic and acknowledged the urgent need to take mitigation and adaptation actions and to strengthen resilience,” talks chair and Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini said in a statement.
“I don’t want to name and blame anyone,” he told reporters.
A senior U.S. State Department official denied Washington had again dragged its heels over global environmental action.
“There were several different versions of the declaration going around. The U.S. was ready to sign,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The idea for “a simpler, positive, unified, collective message” had come from Russia and Canada, he added.
Scientists believe the Arctic contains around 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered reserves of oil and 30 percent of its reserves of natural gas as well as huge deposits of minerals such as zinc, iron and rare earth metals.
Harvesting them remains expensive, but melting ice is making that more feasible, as well as affecting the world’s weather, and the Arctic’s wildlife and indigenous residents.
Addressing the Council, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Donald Trump’s administration “shares your deep commitment to environmental stewardship” in the Arctic. But he said collective goals were not always the answer.
Agreements between countries in the Arctic Council are non-binding, and Pompeo accused Russia and China of not playing by the rules as they look to assert rights over resources and trade routes.
“Collective goals ... are rendered meaningless, even counter-productive as soon as one nation fails to comply,” Pompeo told the Council.
President Trump has frequently expressed scepticism about whether global warming is a result of human activity and has stood by his 2017 decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord signed by almost 200 governments in 2015. That has put him at odds with campaigners and many other countries.
“A climate crisis in the Arctic is not a future scenario, it is happening as we speak,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said in her address to the Council.
The Paris accord agreed to limit a rise in average global temperatures to “well below” 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times by 2100. Worldwide, temperatures are up about 1C (1.8F).
Additional reporting by Anne Kauranen in Helsinki; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Andrew Cawthorne