[USA] In Alaska, President Obama was in a very good mood. He visited the state in late summer to draw attention to the looming climate catastrophe the world faces, but with the exception of one big policy speech when he sounded as apocalyptic as any hemp-growing activist, he spent most of his three days up north beaming. “He’s happy to be out of his cage,” one aide joked. Others credited the buoyant U.S. economy or the fact that the president had just learned that he had secured enough votes to protect the hard-fought nuclear deal with Iran from being derailed by Senate Republicans.
Whatever the reason, you could see the cheerfulness in his face the moment he stepped out of his armored presidential limo at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, where the air was hazy with smoke from the wildfires that had burned millions of acres in Alaska. The president was all smiles, shaking hands with local pols and then bounding up the stairs into Air Force One. No suit and tie, no sir — today, on what was the third and final day of his trip, he was dressed for adventure in black outdoor pants, a gray pullover and a black Carhartt jacket.
He was heading north to Kotzebue, a village about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, which is suffering from a climate-disaster trifecta of melting permafrost, rising seas and bigger storm surges. As White House press releases and video blogs pointed out, this was a historic trip — not only would Obama be the first sitting president to ever visit the Arctic, but he would also be the first president to use a selfie stick to take videos of himself talking about the end of human civilization.
The president’s upbeat mood was an odd and unexpected counterpoint to the seriousness and urgency of the message he was trying to deliver. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” Obama said in his remarks to an international conference on the Arctic in Anchorage on the first day of his trip. In perhaps the starkest language he has ever used in public, Obama warned that unless more was done to reduce carbon pollution, “we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: submerged countries, abandoned cities, fields no longer growing.” His impatience was obvious: “We’re not moving fast enough,” he repeated four times in a 24-minute speech (an aide later told me this repetition was ad-libbed).
Obama’s trip to Alaska marked the beginning of what may be the last big push of his presidency — to build momentum for a meaningful deal at the international climate talks in Paris later this year. “The president is entirely focused on this goal,” one of his aides told me in Alaska. For Obama, who has secured his legacy on his two top priorities, health care and the economy, as well as on important issues like gay marriage and immigration, a breakthrough in Paris would be a sweet final victory before his presidency drowns in the noise of the 2016 election. “If you think about who has been in the forefront of pushing global climate action forward, nobody is in Obama’s league,” says John Podesta, a former special adviser to Obama who is now chairing Hil-lary Clinton’s presidential campaign. (One recent visitor to the Oval Office recalled Obama saying, “I’m dragging the world behind me to Paris.”)
Policywise, the president didn’t have much to offer in Alaska. He restored the original Alaska Native name to the highest mountain in North America (Denali), accelerated the construction of a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, doled out a few million bucks to help Alaska Native villages move to higher ground — largely symbolic gestures that didn’t do much to help Alaskans deal with the fact that their state is melting like a popsicle on a summer sidewalk. In the end, the trip was mostly a calculated and well-crafted presidential publicity stunt. And it raised the question: If the American people see the president of the United States standing atop a melting glacier and telling them the world is in trouble, will they care?
“Part of the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to start making it a little more visceral and to highlight for people that this is not a distant problem that we can keep putting off,” the president told me. “This is something that we have to tackle right now.”
Obama could not have picked a better place to make his point than Alaska. Climatewise, it is the dark heart of the fossil-fuel beast. On one hand, temperatures in the state are rising twice as fast as the national average, and glaciers are retreating so quickly that even the pilot of my Delta flight into Anchorage told passengers to “look out the window at the glaciers on the left side of the aircraft — they won’t be there for long!” The very week of Obama’s visit, 35,000 walruses huddled on the beach in northern Alaska because the sea ice they used as resting spots while hunting had melted away; in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists were tracking the effects of a zone of anomalously warm water that stretches down to Baja California and which has been named, appropriately enough, “the blob.”
On the other hand, the state is almost entirely dependent on revenues from fossil-fuel production, which, thanks to the low price of oil and exhausted oil and gas wells on the North Slope, are in free fall — the state is grappling with a $3.7 billion budget shortage this year. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had flown from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage with the president at the beginning of his trip; according to one of the president’s aides, Walker asked the president to open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling to boost state revenues. “Alaska is a banana republic,” says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental group in Alaska. “The state has to pump oil or die.”
When it comes to climate change, the rap on Obama has always been that he’s better at talk than action. He campaigned in 2008 on a promise to cut carbon pollution and push cap-and-trade legislation through Congress, but his commitment lacked urgency. (During the 2008 campaign, he went out of his way to support “clean coal,” which was the favorite buzzword of Big Coal and political shorthand for “Don’t worry, Midwestern voters, I’m not really serious about this climate-change stuff.”) The year he took office, he brokered a last-minute deal at the Copenhagen climate negotiations, but decided to make health care reform, not climate legislation, his top priority in the first term. With the economy faltering, he pushed through an $800 billion stimulus bill that jump-started the clean-tech revolution in America, financing investment in wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. And he used the leverage he gained during the federal bailout of the auto industry to double fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. But after the 2010 midterm elections, the president had to deal with a Republican Congress full of rabid climate deniers. Rather than confront them and use his bully pulpit to build political momentum for action on climate change, he essentially went dark on the issue for the rest of his first term.
Continue reading: Obama’s climate crusade – Part II
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