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Russia and climate change follow Tillerson to Arctic

FAIRBANKS, USA – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson travelled about as far from Washington as he could without leaving the United States, but could not escape questions about Russia and climate change.

America's top diplomat is in Fairbanks, Alaska on Thursday, May 11, to chair a meeting of the 8-nation Arctic Council, a policy forum for countries with territory in the great white north.

He left behind a US capital in a frenzy over President Donald Trump's abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey, whose agency was investigating Russian interference in the US election.

And he flew into the most northerly US state as concerns were again rising that Trump may abandon or slash back America's commitments under the 2015 Paris climate change accord.

Neither hot-button issue will be forgotten here, even at a low-profile forum at latitude 65 degrees north in a former gold prospecting town on the Chena river south of the Arctic Circle.

"We've got a lot to do tomorrow," Tillerson told guests at a dinner late Wednesday, May 10, including his Russian counterpart and occasional sparring partner Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. 

"But I hope everyone has the opportunity to have a little fun this evening, make some acquaintances and enjoy the fellowship of the evening," he advised the gathering. 

US and Russia

Before he left Washington on Wednesday, Tillerson had met with Lavrov and taken him to see Trump at the White House – a victory for Russia's efforts to resist diplomatic isolation. 

Lavrov will again be at Tillerson's side Thursday, as the pair present the council a jointly-negotiated motion to ease access to Arctic waters to international climate scientists.

Russia and the United States are at loggerheads over the wars in Syria and Ukraine and over Russia's alleged attempts to covertly back Trump's victory in the US presidential race.

Tillerson, who visited Moscow last month but came away with no guarantees, is working on what he calls "very small" areas of common interest to see if the two powers can restore trust.

And Arctic cooperation is familiar ground for Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil chief executive who once negotiated oil deals in northern waters with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Putin set great hopes in Trump's election, hoping that the maverick mogul who praised him publicly and once hosted a Miss Universe pageant in Moscow would ease economic sanctions.

But in Fairbanks, the newly minted American envoy may come under more pressure from traditional allies like Canada and Finland than from Moscow, this time over climate change.

The two-year American chairmanship of the Arctic Forum began under Tillerson's predecessor John Kerry, a passionate advocate of environmental causes and of the global Paris deal.

Previous meetings have drawn attention to the damage that has already been done to the Arctic ecosystem by climate change and the dangers that accelerated warming would pose worldwide.

Arctic solidarity

Finland has made it clear that the climate will remain at the heart of the body's deliberations when it takes over the gavel later Thursday – but Washington's position is in limbo.

Campaigning last year, Trump vowed to pull out of the 196-nation accord, which campaigners, scientists and most governments see as a minimum step to slow dangerous warming.

He has since launched a review of US participation in the deal, but the White House revealed this week that no decision will be made until Trump returns from Europe on May 27. 

This binds Tillerson's hands as he tries to find appropriate words to express solidarity with fellow Arctic nations, without knowing where Trump will finally come down on the issue.

US deputy assistant secretary David Balton tried to square the circle this week in a call with reporters.

"Climate change has been an ongoing topic of interest for the Arctic Council for many chairmanships," he said, predicting that Finland would take up the charge. 

"And the US will remain engaged in the work that the Arctic Council does on climate change throughout," he added. –