In Alaska, Obama Issues Climate Warning

Andrew Harnik/AP

The road to Par­is leads through the Arc­tic.

That was the mes­sage from Pres­id­ent Obama, who said Monday at a speech in Alaska that the Arc­tic re­gion was “a lead­ing in­dic­at­or of what our plan­et is fa­cing” on cli­mate change. The melt­ing gla­ciers and rising sea levels, he said, should serve as an im­petus for the world’s gov­ern­ments to act and com­bat cli­mate change.

“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, re­fer­ring to the United Na­tions cli­mate change talks at the end of the year.

Obama’s re­marks at a State De­part­ment con­fer­ence on cli­mate change in the Arc­tic are part of a mul­ti­day swing through the state, where he will bring the White House’s spot­light on cli­mate change. But he skir­ted the en­vir­on­ment­al con­tro­versy that’s loomed over his trip—his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to al­low Shell to drill for oil in Arc­tic wa­ters.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have said the move is a black mark on Obama’s cli­mate re­cord, and tried to take the mes­sage dir­ectly to him Monday night. Green groups held a rally out­side of the State De­part­ment con­fer­ence, say­ing that open­ing up oil drilling in the risky Arc­tic wa­ters is hy­po­crit­ic­al and puts the fra­gile Arc­tic re­gion at risk.

Obama has pitched his trip as a chance to spot­light about the im­pact cli­mate change is hav­ing on the Arc­tic. Over the next two days, Obama will tour Kenai Fjords Na­tion­al Park and hike Exit Gla­ci­er, meet with fish­er­men in Dilling­ham and vis­it the Arc­tic vil­lage of Kotze­bue. Obama will also film an epis­ode of a real­ity show with sur­viv­al­ist Bear Grylls, all stops that will of­fer grand visu­als to il­lus­trate his mes­sage on cli­mate change.

But greens say it’s tough to square that with the In­teri­or De­part­ment’s de­cision to open up Arc­tic wa­ters for drilling. The ad­min­is­tra­tion gave Shell a fi­nal per­mit to drill in Au­gust and has de­fen­ded it as re­quir­ing the most ad­vanced safety meas­ures (it’s also pos­sible that fu­ture lease sales may not hap­pen while Obama is in of­fice).

The move, however, has threatened to over­shad­ow the stated reas­on for the trip, as en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are de­term­ined to use the vis­it to at­tract at­ten­tion to oil and gas ex­plor­a­tion.

Obama’s also get­ting it from the oth­er side, as oil and gas boost­ers have said they’d like Obama to open up even more drilling and ex­plor­a­tion off the coasts. Alaska Gov. Bill Walk­er, who flew on Air Force One with Obama, said he wanted to use the trip to push Obama on pro­mot­ing a bal­anced en­ergy agenda that in­cluded clean en­ergy and an ex­pan­sion of fossil fuels. Ac­cord­ing to pool re­ports, Walk­er also thanked Obama for the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision on Shell.

Obama’s speech Monday car­ried a stern tone, list­ing through the im­pacts be­ing felt in the Arc­tic such as ra­ging wild­fires, sub­merged vil­lages, and col­lapsing gla­ciers. He left no room for de­bate, say­ing that the sci­ence on cli­mate change was settled and that “any so-called lead­er who does not take this is­sue ser­i­ously or treats it like a joke is not fit to lead.”

Earli­er in the day, Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry had com­pared the scale of the threat of cli­mate change to that of World War II, say­ing world lead­ers needed to band to­geth­er to solve it.

Obama em­phas­ized the work coun­tries have already done to ad­dress cli­mate change, in­clud­ing his own emis­sion-re­duc­tion reg­u­la­tions on the power sec­tor fi­nal­ized this month, but un­der­scored that there was much more for all world lead­ers to do.

“We’re not act­ing fast enough,” he said. “I have come here today, as the lead­er of the world’s largest eco­nomy and its second-largest emit­ter, to say that the United States re­cog­nizes our role in cre­at­ing the prob­lem, and we em­brace our re­spons­ib­il­ity to help solve it.”

“We’re mak­ing pro­gress,” he ad­ded, “we’re just not mak­ing it fast enough.”

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