Obama tries to strike a balance in Alaska
Rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, melting permafrost: the effects of climate change are stark in this vast but sparsely populated state.
Obama, who will speak at the closing of an international conference on the Arctic, wants to shore up public support to tackle what he calls “one of the greatest challenges we face this century.”
His visit comes just months before a crucial conference in Paris — known as COP21 — in December that will aim to cap global temperature increases by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels.
“What’s happening in Alaska is happening to us,” Obama said before leaving Washington. “It’s our wakeup call. And as long as I’m president, America will lead the world to meet the threat of climate change before it’s too late.”
Obama, who will visit glaciers and also meet fishermen who work the front lines of a changing environment, is clearly looking for strong images to highlight his message.
Obama has just imposed, much to the chagrin of his Republican opponents in Congress, strict standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
America is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and has committed to a reduction of 26-28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 compared to 2005.
Alaska is often just a fuel stop for US presidents headed for Asia. But Obama will spend three days in The Last Frontier and become the first sitting US president to visit the Alaskan Arctic.
– ‘Not just a fancy photo’ –
Many in Alaska, which became America’s 49th state in 1959, fear Obama has forgotten the economic difficulties they face.
His visit comes as lowered oil prices have eaten into Alaska’s earnings. The Standard & Poor’s ratings agency this month lowered Alaska’s credit rating from “stable” to “negative.”
Governor Bill Walker has warned that he has a clear message for Obama.
“We have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except that it is three-quarters empty” Walker said last week. “So I’ll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline.”
Republican Congressman Don Young, who supports the expansion of drilling areas, also voiced his concern.
“We are not just a fancy photo on a postcard or a green screen backdrop for the anti-resource development agenda; we are a unique and diverse people that rely upon our lands and our resources to survive,” he wrote in an opinion piece in the Alaska Dispatch News.
And the Alaska Oil and Gas Association called on Obama to “strike a reasonable balance” and reminded him that the oil and gas sector accounted for 110,000 jobs. Only about 737,000 people live in Alaska.
Finding a satisfactory balance seems unlikely, as environmental protection groups also make noise.
They are furious the Obama administration gave the green light to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska.
“If Obama is going to be the climate change leader the world needs, he must revoke Shell’s permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The mixed signals that Obama is sending with his energy and climate policies are truly baffling,” she added. “It’s been frustrating to watch him say eloquent, inspiring words about addressing climate change, and then to watch him betray those words with his actions.”
A less controversial move came Sunday, when Alaska’s Mount McKinley, the tallest of North America’s mountains, was officially renamed Denali.
The mountain had been named in 1896 for a future US president, William McKinley, but local authorities had worked on the change for years, restoring an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance.