Obama’s Alaska trip will help him present a more dramatic view of climate change

By Jean Chemnick, Christa Marshall | 08/26/2015 08:20 AM EDT

President Obama’s summer climate change tour will culminate in the Alaskan Arctic next week, putting him in a setting that has experienced the country’s most dramatic climatic changes and one that Obama hopes will help him boost public support. He will need that for the critical piece in his climate legacy puzzle — a meaningful global deal in Paris in three months.

President Obama’s summer climate change tour will culminate in the Alaskan Arctic next week, putting him in a setting that has experienced the country’s most dramatic climatic changes and one that Obama hopes will help him boost public support. He will need that for the critical piece in his climate legacy puzzle — a meaningful global deal in Paris in three months.

The president will arrive Monday to headline a two-day conference convened by Secretary of State John Kerry dealing with Arctic climate and adaptation issues. The gathering will draw approximately 400 representatives from other Arctic nations and interested foreign observers, and will give Obama a platform to highlight how changes in the Arctic will affect the rest of the world by accelerating warming, contributing to sea-level rise and changing precipitation patterns at lower altitudes.

Kerry will speak at the conference and author a summary document capturing its "key outcomes," according to Karen Florini, deputy special envoy for climate change at the U.S. State Department.


Obama will then travel on Sept. 1 to the Seward area, where he is expected to view the Kenai Fjords and the Harding Icefield, which is home to nearly 40 glaciers. Alaskan and the Canadian Arctic land-based glacier melt ranks with that of the Greenland Ice Sheet as important contributors to global sea-level rise that is already underway.

On the itinerary also are Dillingham in southwestern Alaska and Kotzebue in the northwest Arctic region, both villages with a majority Native Alaskan population that are affected by warming-related problems. The White House had explored the possibility of a journey to one of the smaller villages that are imminently threatened by warming and considering relocation, but the plan seems to have been abandoned for logistical reasons.

Yesterday, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) said he did not think there would be a trip to Kivalina, a village threatened by erosion, because of the size of the runway. He also said he had received assurances that there would be no surprises from the White House as far as "any big announcement" is concerned.

The visit to the Alaskan Arctic — the first by a sitting president — comes at the end of Obama’s 11-day domestic tour, which was planned, among other things, to introduce the administration’s recent climate actions to Americans and to press the need for a new U.N. agreement.

The roadshow is calculated to play up both the economic upside of low-carbon investment and the looming threat of warming, with different stops emphasizing different things.

It began Monday with the president’s remarks at an annual green energy conference in Las Vegas hosted by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). There Obama described renewable energy as an economic engine and U.S. EPA’s newly final Clean Power Plan as the chief policy that will drive its deployment.

He travels tomorrow to New Orleans, where climate change is expected to figure prominently in the 10th anniversary commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, as a contributor to more frequent future storms. And then he will go on to Alaska for Kerry’s Arctic Council meeting.

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Florini said the conference will focus attention on how vulnerable the region is to warming and that what happens in the Arctic "doesn’t stay in the Arctic." She spoke on a webinar yesterday with scientists highlighting dangers to the region from black carbon, as well as a theory that the region’s warming is driving extreme weather all around the globe.

For some environmentalists, the forum provides an opportunity to speed up climate protections outside of the rubric of the Arctic Council, which has a more formalized set of rules and procedures. Others said it also could build momentum for international climate negotiations.

"Having all the Arctic countries and other major nation states coming to Alaska is a very good steppingstone towards Paris," said Margaret Williams, managing director for U.S. Arctic programs at the World Wildlife Fund.

Some environmentalists said it was important that so many non-Arctic countries would be there, considering the opportunity to push for new commitments from those countries to back things such as the Arctic Council’s recent framework to control black carbon, which is still in an implementation phase. Countries such as China, for example, cannot sign onto that framework formally but can support it in principle, noted Erika Rosenthal, a staff attorney at Earthjustice.

Because countries outside of the Arctic contribute a significant amount of black carbon to the region from oil and gas activities, a pledge of some type to reduce it would be very significant, she said. Because it absorbs heat, black carbon is believed to be accelerating the melting snow and ice.

Similarly, Rosenthal said she hoped to see some non-Arctic countries support concepts in an agreement signed in July by five Arctic countries prohibiting commercial fishing in the central Arctic Ocean. Because fish stocks are moving north and activity in the future may not be confined just to Arctic nations, "it’s very important" to get backing for a fishing ban from additional nations, she said.

Climate change will not be the only focus during Obama and Kerry’s visit, considering conference sessions on issues such as search-and-rescue and fisheries, Florini said. That could be welcome news for state lawmakers, who have often said that there is too much of a focus on warming impacts in the state and not enough on economics.

This week, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter to Obama urging him to broaden the scope of the trip. She emphasized the state’s renewable energy projects, include many funded by state revenues from oil production. Climate change should "not be used as an excuse to deprive Alaskans of our best economic prospects," she said.

Similarly, Gov. Walker said at a press conference yesterday that the best thing the state can do as far as emissions is "get off diesel and emissions" and bring natural gas off the North Slope. One of the state’s goals is building an 800-mile pipeline to do that (EnergyWire, Aug. 20). Walker said he would emphasize that pipeline with Obama, as well as the state’s need to extract natural gas resources and address financial challenges caused by low oil prices.

"I want him to see it’s very expensive to relocate a community," said Walker, referring to threatened villages like Shishmaref. "We can’t be limited from access to our resources … and be expected to relocate villages at the same time."

The governor said he would discuss with Obama the warming-induced changes he has witnessed over the years. At the same time, he said he didn’t think the president would use the state as a case study against oil development, considering the recent decision to allow exploratory offshore drilling near Alaska. Walker has been sharply critical of Obama administration plans to block development in large swaths of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The ‘poster child’ state sends a warning

The Arctic has long been a symbol of climatic change, but in recent years, proponents of climate action have de-emphasized the polar bear in favor of messages about heat-related illness and harm to future generations that were seen to resonate more strongly with voters in the Lower 48.

"Alaska really is both the poster child for the impact of climate change and a warning for the dramatic changes that are coming to the rest of the United States and the planet," said Whit Sheard, director of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Arctic Program.

Rafe Pomerance, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for environment and development, called Obama’s Arctic platform "the most powerful communications opportunity that exists on climate change."

"We have terribly difficult politics on this in this country still, and the Arctic should help persuade a lot of people who are wondering about this that global warming and climate change are well underway," said Pomerance, who has been tracking the science of climate change since the late 1970s.

Pomerance said the Arctic is "unraveling," ushering in a host of worrying trends that will have implications for those who live at lower latitudes. The volume of sea ice is diminishing, with late summer ice down more than 40 percent since the 1970s. Glaciers on land are retreating, as well, feeding sea-level rise that threatens coastlines as far away as Hampton Roads, Va., and Miami. Snowless springs in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic have meant less white surface to reflect heat.

And perhaps most worrying of all, the region’s permafrost, or frozen soil, is thought to hold twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. As it melts, it will release that carbon, potentially offsetting much of the greenhouse gases avoided through the regulations that are the subject of so much hot debate in Washington, D.C.

Pete Ogden, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on international climate policy, said that coming on the heels of the Clean Power Plan release and a proposal for oil and gas methane, Obama’s Arctic visit "constitutes a very effective prelude to the international answer" on climate.

"I think he’s trying to use this to put some wind in the sails of the rest of his team as they enter the short-strokes phase in these last three months, and focus on taking all of this domestic activity and embedding it in a broader international agreement in which other major polluters are already taking robust action," Ogden said.