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

He is the first sitting president to travel to Alaska's Arctic, but is facing criticism from environmentalists for allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea.
August 28, 2015, 5:00pm
Photo by Michael Reynolds/EPA

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When Barack Obama heads north to Alaska next week, he'll be getting a firsthand look at a place where climate change is no longer theoretical.

He'll see glaciers that are pulling back sharply, their water adding to the rise of oceans around the world. He'll see a shoreline that's losing several feet a year to the sea now without the ice floes that once shielded it. He'll see people worried about losing a way of life that kept their ancestors alive in that harsh environment for centuries.

But even as he uses his visit to highlight the problem for the Lower 48, some of the people who normally cheer him on are still stung by his administration's refusal to stop the most controversial oil exploration project in years.

"There is an inherent inconsistency between commitment to action to address climate change on the one hand and a willingness to further exploration for difficult oil in a remote and dangerous place," said Michael LeVine, an Anchorage-based attorney for the environmental group Oceana.

Royal Dutch Shell's push for oil in the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska's northwest coast, hangs over the president as he heads to a State Department-led conference on Arctic issues in Anchorage. Foreign ministers will discuss working together in the region, which increasingly is open to human activity. Public panels will cover renewable energy, emergency response, protecting fisheries, and building more efficient homes.

"The Arctic is unraveling," former State Department official Rafe Pomerance told VICE News. "There is no longer any debate. It's undeniable that the unraveling is happening. It's visual, it's documented, and it's going on in all kinds of systems."

Related: The Obama Administration Gives Shell the Final Go Ahead for Arctic Oil Drilling

The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe. The past winter's icepack is the smallest in nearly four decades of satellite observations, while summer ice cover is well below the 30-year average. Scientists say warming is starting to affect the atmospheric current that regulates weather for the Lower 48, and Greenland's ice sheet — which holds enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet — has lost mass at a striking rate this season.

"The fate of Greenland is the fate of Miami," said Pomerance, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for environmental issues in the Clinton administration and now advises the National Academy of Sciences on Arctic issues.

"The message from the Arctic is 'All hands on deck," he added. "The global response to this has to be as robust as possible, and to do that, you have to build a much greater political urgency and understanding. I think the president's trip — the symbolism, the photo ops — are hopefully a turning point."

Organizers hope the conference will result in a "rebalancing" of the discussion about what riches the Arctic holds: "The tragedy is that the reason for that is the unraveling," he said.

After giving the closing address at Monday's conference, Obama will visit Seward, Dillingham and Kotzebue, a largely native Alaskan town just north of the Arctic Circle, the White House said. He'll be the first sitting president to set foot in the Alaskan Arctic, the White House said.

The President's first stop will take him to Kenai Fjords National Park, where the glaciers are receding rapidly.

"I hope they take him up the Exit Glacier," University of Alaska geophysicist William Harrison told VICE News. "It's had a terrific retreat. It'll be interesting for him to see that."

Virtually all of Alaska's glaciers are drawing back or getting thinner, contributing an outsized share to global sea levels, Harrison said. In June, University of Alaska researchers reported mountain glaciers were shedding enough water to cover the largest US state with a foot of water every seven years, contributing about a third of the current rise in global sea levels.

"Glaciers are very sensitive to temperature, and a couple of degrees of warming in temperature can knock them out," Harrison said. The retreat of the Exit Glacier "is probably a really good indicator that there are a lot of crazy things going on."

Further inland, the tundra is sprouting with brush and trees as the permafrost melts.

"There's a fantastic change in the vegetation. I hope they take him up there and point that out to him," Harrison said.

In the far north, above the Bering Strait, the loss of sea ice means coastal towns are more exposed to storm surges that are tearing away at their beaches.

"Right now usually even this time of the year, we have some ice that will break the waves coming in," George Olemaun, president of the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, told VICE News.

"We don't have that now. I don't know that we'll get that until late fall or early winter, October, November, the way things are happening," he said. "Right now, we lose at least 10 to 20 feet a year on our beach. That's expected nowadays."

Olemaun lives in Barrow, at the northernmost tip of Alaska, hundreds of miles from where Obama will visit. But other coastal towns like Kotzebue face the same problems, with some losing more than 30 feet of shoreline a year, Harrison said.

'It's heartbreaking to see someone who clearly is trying to be a climate leader do something that potentially could undo his entire climate legacy.'

Obama came to office vowing history would record his administration as the time "when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and the planet began to heal." In the face of intense opposition from Congress, his administration has ordered power plants to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions from power plants, raised fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and spent billions of dollars to promote renewable energy. He recently told a renewable-energy conference in Las Vegas that "no challenge poses a greater threat to our future."

The United States is the current president of the Arctic Council, which includes seven other countries with a slice of the top of the world — Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia — and has made climate change a priority for that group.

But as Obama tries to rally the world behind efforts to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), his Interior Department has allowed Shell to start drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Regulators have imposed limits on the company's operations to limit the risk of a Deepwater Horizon-like spill and protect marine life on which indigenous communities like Olemaun's subsist — but let it to go forward despite bitter opposition from environmentalists, most of whom otherwise support Obama's actions.

"It's impossible to reconcile his decision to drill in the Arctic," Franz Matzner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Beyond Oil Initiative," told VICE News. "It's simply contradictory to cut emission from power plants and cars and then open the floodgates to the next generation of carbon pollution."

Matzner said the world already has far more known reserves of oil, gas, and coal than it can burn without driving global temperatures beyond the 2-degree mark. Obama's Alaska jaunt provides "a tremendous leadership opportunity" for Obama to reverse course, he said.

Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state and the Democratic frontrunner to succeed him, opposes offshore drilling in the Arctic. So does former Vice President Al Gore, who has called the project "insane."

But oil is Alaska's lifeblood. Crude taxes provide more than half the state's budget and pay for 90 percent of its discretionary spending. The state levies no income or sales taxes. And every Alaskan — man, woman and child — gets a cut of the proceeds from the state's hydrocarbon wealth every year, with the 2014 dividend topping $1,800 per person.

Related: Hillary Clinton Is Not a Fan of Obama's Arctic Drilling Decision

The state's sole member of the US House of Representatives, Republican Don Young, offered the president a less-than-hearty welcome on his website.

"We are a unique and diverse people that rely upon our lands and our resources to survive," Young wrote. "If this visit is simply a platform for the 'we know best' environmental agenda, I suggest the President save the manpower, taxpayer resources, and countless gallons of jet fuel, and give that stump speech from somewhere else."

And while the administration is trying to convince other countries to swear off fossil fuels, it insists that oil and gas resources in the Arctic can be developed responsibly until alternatives can be found. In a statement to VICE News, White House spokesman Frank Benenati said the Obama administration has "invested aggressively" in renewables to speed that process.

"But it's also true that we cannot make that transition overnight, which is why we have taken steps to ensure safe and responsible development of our domestic energy resources that benefits our economy and enhances global energy security — with safety remaining paramount," Benanati said.

"We refuse to surrender the hope of a clean energy future to those who fear it and fight it." —@POTUS: http://t.co/jmJUBHSLqb #ActOnClimate

— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 25, 2015

And in May, Obama told reporters the United States should produce its own fuel "with all the safeguards and standards that we have," rather than import it "from places that have much lower environmental standards than we do."

Pomerance said the decision may take "a bit of the shine off" Obama's effort, but it shouldn't hinder the president's ability to get his message across.

"It's my opinion that he'll be able to make the case," he said. The Shell decision, "as big a problem as it is for many," won't undercut that, he said.

Groups like Greenpeace, which mounted a dramatic, last-ditch attempt to stop the project in late July, will be protesting the Shell decision outside the Anchorage conference. Greenpeace spokesman Travis Nichols told VICE News that Obama has been trying to steer a cautious course, making quarter-turns here and there, when what's needed is "a full 180."

"It's heartbreaking to see someone who clearly is trying to be a climate leader do something that potentially could undo his entire climate legacy," Nichols said. "It shows this system is so entrenched, and it's so difficult to move away from this fossil-fuel economy, even when everything tells you that you have to."

Olemaun said native Alaskan officials have opposed the project "From the git-go" because of safety concerns. He's not convinced that Shell can handle a spill in the harsh, frigid sea.

"Obama has helped us to get what we need for our people," he said. "But at the same time, and it's understandable, they need the oil … As we all know, the money rules everything, and that's the issue that we always face."

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