Climate change is rapidly becoming one of the divisive issues of our time, if not the most divisive one.

Depending on where you find yourself — geographically or politically — you'll be confronted with very distinct interpretations of what is happening to our planet.

On one side, there's science. In Paris, the United Nations released a report on Tuesday saying that 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival. More species are now threatened than at any other period in human history, with climate change contributing to the decline in biodiversity.

On the other side, there's either a denial of those facts, or science with a spin. The latter was on display on Tuesday in Finland, where US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo objected to climate change action references in a key Arctic policy statement, and instead preferred to highlight potential advantages of global warming for global trade.


"Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade," Pompeo said.

US allies in the Arctic Council — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Canada — were stunned by his stance.

Speaking to Finland's public broadcaster, the director of the University of Lapland's Arctic Centre, Timo Koivurova, said tensions with Russia were one reason the Arctic Council faced a difficult time ahead. "But mostly it's been about the Trump presidency and their stance toward climate change which really has made things difficult," Koivurova acknowledged.

"I feel like I got a slap in the face," Liisa Rohweder, the CEO of WWF Finland which is an observer at the Arctic Council, told the broadcaster.

The Finnish chairman of the Arctic Council, Aleksi Harkonen, had earlier indicated that no statement would be passed without a climate change mention: "Provided we have a declaration, climate change will be addressed."

To other members of the Arctic Council, the latest report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — which found that 95 per cent of the region's thickest floating sea ice has already melted — added a sense of urgency ahead of the meeting this week.

Efforts by the United States to remove the references were first reported by the Washington Post on May 2, but other members of the Arctic Council have continued to try to negotiate a reversal. On Tuesday, Pompeo appeared to stick with his stance, however, vaguely referring to events that "may or may not occur in 100 years". Instead, he focused on more traditional foes: Russia and China.

"We're entering a new age of strategic engagement in the Arctic, complete with new threats to Arctic interests and its real estate," said Pompeo.


The secretary of state on Tuesday joined others in comparing the trade route's growing accessibility to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which allowed ships to go straight from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. But the northern route would cut the distance by another 8000km, from 21,000 to about 12,000. Container ships would arrive about two weeks faster, which would make them competitive with trains that currently cost twice as much.

Mike Pompeo spoke at the summit on the same day the United nations released a report on the threat to the planet's biodiversity. Photo / AP
Mike Pompeo spoke at the summit on the same day the United nations released a report on the threat to the planet's biodiversity. Photo / AP

Last summer, an ice-class vessel owned by Danish shipping giant Maersk became the first container ship to complete the route as an experiment.

Estimates of when that sea route would be ice-free in summer have shortened, as the impact of climate change has progressed. Copenhagen Business School researchers said that the route could become easily accessible to normal container ships at some point within the next 25 years.

The Kremlin sees the Northern Sea route as a future revenue source and may bill companies seeking to pass its exclusive economic zone. Russia has also invested in military bases in the Arctic region to secure its claims on natural resources in the region.

Meanwhile, China is hoping to expand its Belt and Road Initiative to the Arctic and to build economic hubs there. Last year, China called itself a "near-Arctic state", even though it is located about 1500km from the Arctic, and called for a "Polar Silk Road". Amid Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, concerns have mounted that China might be increasingly willing to defend its trade interests with military might, even though experts say that a similar scenario in the Arctic Sea is unlikely, at least in the near future.

The northern route would also give China an alternative to a southern route dominated by US allies.

On Tuesday, Pompeo dismissed China's claims to be a "near-Arctic state" and warned of South China Sea scenarios in the region. Occupying a bigger area than the Mediterranean Sea, the sea that stretches from China to Indonesia holds oil and gas reserves, but is also crucial to global trade routes.

China views most of the sea as part of its territory and has constructed artificial islands around reefs and rocks, but other nations in the region are rejecting the Chinese claims. The US is supporting none of those claims and wants to preserve the status quo.

China on Wednesday rejected Pompeo's criticism, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saying that the remarks were "inconsistent with the general trend of peaceful co-operation in the Arctic, completely confuses right with wrong, and has ulterior motives". "But on the cross-regional and global issues of the Arctic, China will not be absent and can and will play a constructive role," Shuang was quoted as saying.

One of those global issues is climate change and unlike the US, China is at least a signatory to the Paris accord and has paid lip service to the attempt to mitigate its effects. Which for some Europeans, anyway, may make it easier to work together on the future of the Arctic even if China isn't a member of the Arctic Council.

What Mike Pompeo said

Speaking in Finland on Tuesday at the opening session of the Arctic Council, a body of eight nations with territory in the region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the members should no longer limit their focus to scientific collaboration, cultural matters and "environmental research into events that may or may not occur in 100 years", an oblique reference to climate change.

Instead he warned of the dangers of Russian militarisation and Chinese investment in the Arctic, a region he described as "an arena of global power and competition".

This is an excerpt from his speech:

"This is America's moment to stand up as an Arctic nation and for the Arctic's future.

"Because far from the barren backcountry that many thought it to be in Seward's time, the Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance. It houses 13 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil, 30 per cent of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth minerals, gold, diamonds, and millions of square miles of untapped resources. Fisheries galore.

"And its centrepiece, the Arctic Ocean, is rapidly taking on new strategic significance.

"Offshore resources, which are helping the respective coastal states, are the subject of renewed competition.

"Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.

Arctic sea lanes could [become] the 21st century Suez and Panama canals."