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Obama Says Politicians Who Treat Climate Change Like a Joke Aren't Fit to Lead

The president warned that not enough is being done to avert dangerous global temperature rise, which is heating up the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the world.
September 1, 2015, 6:38pm
Photo by Andrew Harnik/AP

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US President Barack Obama pleaded with Arctic nations to pull together and hold the line on climate change, telling a Monday conference in Alaska that time to avert catastrophe is running out.

Obama urged delegates to the US State Department-led conference in Anchorage to drink in "the God-given majesty of this place" and seize the chance to reduce the carbon emissions driving global warming.

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"On this issue of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late," Obama said. "And that moment is almost upon us."

Obama is using a three-day visit to Alaska to highlight the rapid changes in the Arctic, which scientists call a harbinger for the rest of the world. He said that as the second-largest source of CO2, the United States has a heavy responsibility. Last November's emissions pact with No. 1 emitter China and improvements in renewable energy show progress is possible, "but we're not moving fast enough," he said.

"This year in Paris has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet we've got while we still can," Obama said. He laid out the risks posed by a future of rising seas, deeper droughts and more intense storms. And he leveled a broadside at his domestic opposition, much of which insists that the science remains debatable or that the costs of cutting emissions are too high.

"Any leader willing to take a gamble on a future like that — any so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously, or treats it like a joke — is not fit to lead," he said.

Related: Obama Is Heading to Alaska to Highlight Climate Change — Despite Arctic Drilling Approval

The United Nations hopes to hammer out a pact in Paris this December to limit warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 F). Alaska is already nearing that mark, with dramatic results — rapidly melting glaciers, trees and brush sprouting from the tundra, and coastal towns where beaches are being eaten away by storms as sea ice recedes. Scientists say that warming is starting to affect weather patterns in the lower latitudes and threatens to unleash a vicious circle that will speed up the effects worldwide.

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"The bottom line is that climate change is not a distant threat for our children and their children to worry about," US Secretary of State John Kerry told his counterparts.

Obama is scheduled spend the next two days viewing the receding glaciers near Seward and visiting coastal towns on the front lines of the phenomenon — including one in the far northwest, making him the first sitting president to set foot in the Alaskan Arctic.

But his administration's efforts to rally other powers behind the 2-degree pact are shadowed by its decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to start drilling for oil in the frigid Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northwest coast. The project faced bitter opposition from some of the same organizations that strongly support the administration's other steps to tackle climate change, and that opposition remained evident in Anchorage.

Glacier ice at GLACIER. Dignitaries will watch it melt throughout the conference. — Griffin Plush (@GriffinPlush)August 31, 2015

A coalition of environmental groups, including some native Alaskan organizations, demonstrated against the decision outside the conference hall. Critics were scattered among Obama's supporters as he arrived Monday afternoon, with some shouting "Shell no." Mary Nicol, the senior Arctic campaigner for Greenpeace, said signing off on the project "undermines every other bold move the president has made."

"After President Obama's comments on climate change tonight, it's clear he realizes what he has to do," Nicol said. "It's time for him to show courage and leadership equal to the people around the world who have stood up against Arctic drilling. He must stop Shell's plans and put a moratorium on future drilling in the Arctic Ocean."

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But oil is Alaska's economic lifeblood, and not all indigenous Alaskan groups are opposed to drilling. In an open letter to Obama, the president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, Rex Rock, wrote that oil provides "jobs, security, and opportunity" for native Alaskans.

"History has shown us that the responsible energy development which is the lifeblood of our economy can exist in tandem with, and significantly enhance, our traditional way of life," wrote Rock, whose company has the option to buy into Shell's leases through a joint venture.

Obama addressed the controversy during last weekend's Saturday radio address, saying, "I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well." But he said his administration has held Shell to "the highest standards possible."

"The bottom line is, safety has been and will continue to be my administration's top priority when it comes to oil and gas exploration off America's precious coasts - even as we push our economy and the world to ultimately transition off of fossil fuels," he said.

Related: Tens of Thousands of Stranded Walruses Are Once Again Gathering In Alaska

The Anchorage conference brought together top diplomats and experts from the United States and seven other nations with a slice of top of the globe, as well as the European Union, China, Japan and other nations. Ministers discussed renewable energy, fisheries, navigation and emergency response in a region that's harsh, but increasingly accessible to commercial interests.

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"As more and more people begin to take advantage of the new shipping lanes and the potential of exploration of resources, there is obviously a heightened need to be able to expand open water search and rescue responsibilities and capabilities, and also to define the rules of the road," Kerry said.

In their joint statement at the end of the conference, the ministers also called for efforts to reduce the amount of methane, smoke, and soot released by industry. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, while black soot absorbs heat and reduces the reflectivity of snow and ice, meaning less solar energy gets reflected back into space.

Watching from the sidelines were representative of the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, which Monday urged countries to ban heavy fuel oil for shipping in the far North and capturing, rather than flaring off, the methane that comes up with oil. Laura Strickler, a consultant for the group, said the conference "will do a great job building momentum to Paris."

"It's an opportunity to indicate that all the countries here are serious about doing something big in Paris," Strickler said. "It raises the bar a little bit."

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