Gloomy Obama calls Alaska ‘leading edge of climate change’

By Margaret Kriz Hobson | 09/01/2015 01:43 PM EDT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — President Obama landed in Alaska yesterday, painting an apocalyptic picture of the devastating conditions in store for the state’s coastal communities and other vulnerable parts of the world if international leaders don’t take immediate action to slash greenhouse gas emissions.

In a speech at a State Department climate change conference, Obama called for international support for a strong climate agreement at the United Nations’ December negotiations in Paris.

He warned that without aggressive action to cut carbon emissions, world leaders will "condemn our children to a world they will no longer have the capacity to repair."

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"The fact is that the climate is changing faster than our ability to address it," he told the room full of foreign dignitaries. "We’re not acting fast enough. None of the nations represented here are moving fast enough."

Obama in Alaska
President Obama spoke at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) Conference at Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage yesterday as Secretary of State John Kerry looked on. | Photo by Andrew Harnik, courtesy of AP Images.

Obama described the Arctic as "the leading edge of climate change — our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces."

With Alaska’s climate warming twice as fast as the rest of the nation’s, the president said the state faces "thawing permafrost [that] destabilizes the earth on which 100,000 Alaskans live, threatening homes, damaging transportation and energy infrastructure, which could cost billions of dollars to fix."

Obama’s blunt language and emergency call to action won praise from environmentalists at the conference. But some Alaska officials asserted that the president’s speech was more directed at the Lower 48 and international climate change negotiators, rather than to the Alaskan people.

"It reinforced my belief that Alaska is being used as a backdrop for climate," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) charged. "And when the president goes to Paris, when Secretary [of State John] Kerry is in Paris, that will be a very convenient talking point for them.

"But Alaskans are asking: What does this mean for me and my family when it comes to our energy security?"

Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she was hoping Obama would include an "action plan" for energy development in Alaska that mentioned fossil fuels as well as wind and wave power.

"I’m a strong believer in renewable energy," she said. "But I also recognize that renewable energy is intermittent energy. And until we can do more to build out the microgrids here in Alaska, the energy solutions that [the government is] working on in the Lower 48 don’t help me here."

None of the speakers at the conference mentioned the elephant in the room: Obama’s August decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell PLC to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea for the first time in 24 years.

But in the opening plenary session, Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule said Alaskans "have learned that with diligence and oversight that you can balance resource development and still have the animals and the fish and the plants flourish."

"Our message is quite simple," he said. "Development of our resources must include food, culture, energy and economic security for Alaska’s First People. And any development of oil on the outer continental shelf must include revenue-sharing to our impacted communities."

Obama’s agenda

Today, Obama is due to travel to Seward, Alaska, where he’ll visit the Exit Glacier and take a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. He’s also scheduled to take the unlikely step of appearing on a special episode of "Running Wild with Bear Grylls," a reality TV show that focuses on outdoor survival skills.

While in Seward, the president will announce plans to acquire a new heavy icebreaker for the Coast Guard by 2020, two years ahead of the current schedule.

At the same time, he’ll outline plans to push Congress for funding for additional icebreakers. The Coast Guard currently has one "heavy" icebreaker, the Polar Star, and one "medium" icebreaker, the Healy. A third icebreaker called the Polar Sea is not operational; in 2013, the Coast Guard estimated that renovating it would cost $100 million.

The White House said Obama will also release plans by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coast Guard to chart a transit route through the Aleutians and Bering Strait to improve safety for the growing marine traffic navigating the Arctic’s open waters.

Meanwhile, administration officials say the president intends to re-energize the Denali Commission to provide federal help to Alaska’s coastal villages that are being forced to relocate due to rising sea levels and erosion.

The commission, created in 1998 to cut federal red tape and help deliver government services to Alaska residents, has been relatively dormant in recent years.

Murkowski said the commission is a likely vehicle for directing federal assistance to vulnerable Native communities like Newtok, Shishmaref and Kivalina.

But she noted that the commission’s current $11 million budget is a drop in the bucket compared to the soaring costs of helping even one Native community move to a new site.

She encouraged Obama to "put your money where your mouth is" to back the effort.

"If you don’t put the resources behind it, it’s nothing more than yet another program on paper," she argued. "It will take real dollars to move these communities."

Ministers huddle

Obama spoke at the end of a daylong climate change conference during which U.S. officials met in closed session with ministers from 10 other nations and the European Union to negotiate a joint climate statement.

The outcome of those talks was a declaration affirming the importance of the Framework for Action on Black Carbon and Methane, adopted in April at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting.

The ministers also called for additional research on the impact of global warming on Arctic permafrost and for cooperation on wildland fire management. And they committed to helping vulnerable Arctic communities build resilience to climate impacts and to working with rural villages to deploy low-carbon solutions.