Obama will urge aggressive climate action on three-day trip to Alaska

Glacial melt in Alaska. (Photo: Still from White House video)
Glacial melt in Alaska. (Photo: Still from White House video)

Publish date: September 1, 2015

As President Barack Obama today heads to Alaska to press his reinvigorated climate message, he does so against a background of hopefulness and skepticism in US media, and divided opinion among American environmental groups.

The three-day tour – which will include a hike across a shrinking glacier and visits to coastal communities buffeted by sea-level rise and erosion – is intended to showcase the real-time effects of climate change in visceral terms.

Obama’s trip marks the first of a sitting US President to America’s largest and most northerly state. His first stop on Monday will be a foreign ministers’ conference in Anchorage. The US took over leadership of the eight-nation Arctic Council in April.

obama WH video.jpg Obama speaks on a White House video about his trip to Alaska. (Photo: Still from White House video)

But the White House has been forced in the 11th hour to push back against campaigners who accuse Obama of undermining his environmental agenda by giving the go-ahead to Shell to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea only weeks after rolling out his signature Clean Power Plan, which will sharply curb carbon releases from new coal fired power plants and restrict methane emissions from oil and gas refineries.

Environmental backlash

“It’s inconsistent on the one hand for President Obama to lead the world toward comprehensive action on climate change, while on the other allowing companies to pursue difficult, expensive oil in dangerous and remote places,” said Michael LeVine, Pacific senior counsel for Oceana, an environmental group, in a statement to media. “Moving forward with exploiting Arctic oil and gas is inconsistent with the Administration’s stated goal and meaningful action on climate change.”

The Credo environmental group called Obama’s climate trip a “symbol of the self-defeating hypocrisy” in a statement, adding, “climate leaders don’t drill the Arctic.”

Conservationists, native leaders and climate activists are holding a rally against Arctic drilling in Anchorage on Monday to coincide with  Obama’s arrival.

Balancing oil and the environment

Obama, in his weekly address on Saturday, insisted there was no clash between his climate change agenda and Arctic drilling.

America was weaning itself off fossil fuels, he said in his address. But he continued to say that: “Our economy still has to rely on oil and gas. As long as that’s the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports.”

The challenges of protecting the Arctic from climate change as well as the risks of offshore drilling were both touched on by the White House and the oil industry over the weekend.

Chukchi_Sea ice Researchers aboard an icebreaker studying ice in the Chukchi Sea. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Extreme sea ice cover loss has forced some 6,000 walruses ashore on a barrier Island near the Chukchi Sea, US government officials reported.

Shell meanwhile told the Associated Press in an email that it’s been forced to pause its Chukchi drilling and evacuate workers because of extreme weather conditions.

The president had hoped to use his visit to display the changes unfolding in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the White House said.

Senior White House advisor Brian Deese told reporters in a conference call that Obama’s trip would focus little on defending the Shell permits – which were in any case finalized during the administration of George W Bush – and focus climate change’s impacts on the Arctic, which has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the world over the past six decades.

“This is an issue that is very here and now,” Brian Deese told reporters on Friday. “Near and above the Arctic Circle, the impacts of climate change are particular pronounced and Americans are living with those impacts in real time.”

He said Obama would use the visit to draw public attention to those consequences: the retreat of sea ice, land loss due to melting permafrost and coastal erosion, increasingly severe storms and growing risk of wildfires.

According to preliminary plans released by the White House over the weekend, Obama will Monday call for sweeping collective action on climate change, pushing for commitments designed to propel a global accord in December at the UN COP21 climate summit in Paris.

He then plans to zigzag the state bearing witness to the effects of warming temperatures, hiking Exit Glacier in Seward on Tuesday and meeting Wednesday with salmon fishermen in Dillingham on pristine Bristol Bay.

Exit Glacier Alaska Exit Glacier, which is melting thanks to climate change. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Then he will head to the town of Kotzebue, above the Arctic Circle, which is being inundated by the sea because of soil erosion, brought on by melting permafrost and stronger storms resulting from higher temperatures.

US media’s chiding reaction

Many influential US media have focused in somewhat jeering terms how the Alaskan landscape provides a picturesque stage set for Obama’s message at the expense of what that message actually is.

The New York Times noted the “three-day trip” was “choreographed to lend spectacular visuals and real-world examples to Mr. Obama’s message […].” The Washington Post opened its coverage by saying “As stage sets go, Alaska is a spectacular one. Its props: craggy mountain ranges, picturesque coastlines and iconic glaciers.”

National Public Radio recalled that strong climate initiatives were not necessarily a part of Obama’s “bucket list” for his last two years in office, but rather a part of his famous list of things that rhyme with “bucket.”

“New climate regulations. Bucket, it’s the right thing to do,” Obama told the White House Correspondents dinner in June, NPR noted in its blog called “It’s all politics.”

And nearly all outlets focused on the trip being part of Obama’s effort to craft his legacy as the president who finally made some effort on the climate change issue.

Solving the climate crisis takes political will

But Bellona would argue that, politics aside, Obama’s Alaska trip is a necessary cornerstone in his campaign point out to the US that climate change is already hitting them at home, and Obama has a right to claim whatever legacy that brings.

And, far from being a last ditch stunt, the trip is consistent with other mountains the White House has managed to move to improve its position as a crucial deal-maker in the critical Paris talks, which are widely seen as the last chance the world will have to hold at a 2 degree Celsius temperature rise.

Chief among these have been the Obama administration’s diplomatic coup to convince China to lay out climate commitments.

The US and China together account for 45 percent of the world’s emissions.