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​Obama Heads to the Arctic for a Photo Op with Our Melting Future

It’s the first time a sitting US president has visited Alaska, and it’s because the place is heating up.

by Brian Merchant
Aug 31 2015, 2:30pm

Rotted sea ice melts on the shore of Cape Krusenstern, Alaska. Image: Education Specialist/Flickr CC

There are few better places to look for a glimpse of our climate-changed future than Alaska, where temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of the world, ice sheets are rapidly melting, glaciers are calving spectacularly, wildfires are sweeping the too-dry lands, marine life is desperately crowding its shrinking environs, and sea level rise is forcing entire villages to relocate.

It is in many ways the ideal place for a photo op if you're, say, an American president looking to drive home the point that global warming is on our doorstep right here, right now.

Which is exactly why Obama is heading to Alaska for a three-day, headline-making trip to the Arctic—it's the first time a sitting president has visited Alaska, and the president has already made waves by renaming Mount McKinley with its Alaskan Native name, Denali—to build a narrative around the urgency of climate change, to give some fodder to reporters and broadcasters who'd otherwise leave the story of the warming planet alone.

Obama's trip tops the news cycle on Monday. Image: Screenshot/Google News

It's already working—climate change-related headlines about the president's northern voyage top Google News and plenty of other outlets. On Friday, the president made Alaska and climate change the focus of his weekly address.

"Alaskans are already living with [climate change's] effects," he said. "And if we do nothing, Alaskan temperatures are projected to rise between six and twelve degrees by the end of the century, changing all sorts of industries forever."

Obama took pains to underline the urgency of the issue, to decouple the phenomenon from scientific projections or modeled forecasts: "This is all real. This is happening to our fellow Americans right now. In fact, Alaska's governor recently told me that four villages are in 'imminent danger' and have to be relocated. Already, rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community.

"Think about that," he continued. "If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we'd do everything in our power to protect ourselves. Climate change poses the same threat, right now."

It was a pretty good speech.

Alaska's relationship to climate change is, however, far more complex than melting icebergs—it's also a story of an economic dependence on the very fossil fuels that caused the Earth to warm in the first place, and the geopolitics that increasingly iceless climes are complicating—the state is a prime illustrator of that, too. Even as climate change is (very visibly) transforming its ecology and society, the state's governor plans to push Obama to loosen the rules for oil extraction.

And just recently, Obama himself approved the further drilling for oil off Alaska's shores, a move that outraged environmentalists and casts his climate-themed visit into an uneasy light. Meanwhile, Russia has planted a flag at the North pole, and is claiming vast swaths of the Arctic as its own, and is going forward with oil and gas drilling operations, too. It is, according to observers with a flair for the dramatic, a "new cold war."

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin's tweet after inaugurating a new camp in the North Pole. Image: Twitter via Dot Earth

For all these reasons, Alaska is a fairly ideal microcosm for the future under climate change: It's becoming demonstrably hotter and drier, the environment more hostile to civilization, even outright existentially threatening: Alaska's village of Newtok is literally being swept away by rising seas. Yet in spite of all that, we fail to get the memo, and plan instead to actively expand our embrace of the toxin responsible for all these deadly symptoms.

That's the world under climate change, in 2015, in a nutshell.

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