President Obama will travel to Alaska on Monday, launching a three-day push for stronger action against climate change. In a measure of the issue’s hard politics and even harder science, however, no one in Alaska seems particularly happy to see him.
Not the governor, who wants to expand oil and gas exploration. Not the state’s North Slope Eskimos, who rely on fossil fuel revenues. Not even the major environmental groups, because they want to see the president go even further.
In Alaska, a state already hurdling toward an overheated doom, the president is scheduled to hike the slick surface of a melting glacier and visit coastal people in the path of a rising sea. He’ll also address a State Department sponsored conference on the Arctic.
The end game would be a global agreement at the climate summit in Paris this December. It's perhaps our last good chance to avert the worst. And activists have long been calling for exactly this kind of stepped-up effort to rebalance the atmosphere.
But when President Obama arrives in Anchorage in the afternoon, hundreds of people — organized by Greenpeace and nearly a dozen partners — are expected to greet him in a froth of anger and frustration. They’ll use art, music, and microphones to call attention to the fact that Obama’s policy’s fall short of what climate scientists says is necessary.
“We are thankful the President is willing to see for himself the real impacts of climate change,” said Faith Gemmill, an organizer from a grouped called Redoil. “But we hope that once he understands the dire situation, he will go further.”
What must be maddening to the administration is that President Obama has already gone very, very far already. Arguably no leader has done more to trim the carbon pollution that’s driving global warming.
Obama has bypassed a Republican-controlled, climate change-denying Congress and answered the emissions threat sector-by-sector. He’s targeted the tailpipes of our cars and trucks, and the smokestacks of our power plants.
He’s also fought efforts to drill for oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, nearly 12 million fenceless acres of oil-rich rock. He’d like to make it forever off-limits to fossil fuel extractors. And he’s articulated an alternative: solar and wind.
By 2030, if all goes as promised, American emissions will be at least 26% below 2005 levels—all thanks to Obama, the first truly environmental president.
“That's leadership when and where it counts,” argues Rhea Suh, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It's come in the face of virulent opposition by an industry hunkering down to anchor our future in the dirty fuels of the past."
But if Obama started a clean revolution, he also propped up the old dirty kingdom of oil and gas. Both fuel sources have boomed during his presidency, assisted by multi-billion dollar subsidies.
Just this month the Obama administration gave Shell the final permits needed to drill for oil beneath the Arctic Ocean. It’s a move that could undermine Obama’s wider push for reforms. After all, Shell is now spinning a drill bit through the same sea that Alaskans fear could come through their front doors. Obama is even scheduled to visit one of the towns where Shell keeps equipment.
It’s enough of a contradiction that CREDO, a pressure group for progressive causes, is calling this President Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. The reference is to when President George W. Bush declared victory six weeks into a decade-long war in Iraq. CREDO calls Obama a hypocrite in an op-ed on Medium and in a remix of the White House’s own video about the Arctic.
“Really?!? Is President Obama trolling us?” reads a message at the start of Credo’s version. “Here’s your wake-up call, Mr. President,” it says. “Climate leaders don’t drill the Arctic.”
Last Saturday, Obama defended his position. He suggested that there was little choice but to allow a race for oil in the largest untapped reserve on earth -- even as he visits Alaska to highlight the climate-altering emissions of fossil fuel.
“Our economy still has to rely on oil and gas,” he said in his weekly address. “As long as that’s the case, I believe we should rely more on domestic production than on foreign imports.”
Alaska’s governor, Bill Walker, agrees. But he's no great fan of Obama's policies. He’s a former oil and gas attorney, and he’d like to see the president roll back some of the limits on exploration. Shell is the first company to drill the Alaskan Arctic in 20 years. At a press conference last week, Walker seemed to promise to push Obama to allow more exploration.
“We have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except it is three-quarters empty,” Walker said. “So I’ll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline.”
While he insisted that his argument wouldn't necessarily conflict with Obama’s, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. Walker signed a press release earlier this year that said Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell were “declaring war on Alaska’s future” by trying close the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas.
His fight, he told reporters, is not against atmospheric climate change — but “economic climate change.” That, he said, is the “Alaskan message”
From Thursday until Sunday, more than 12,000 native Alaskans delivered their own perspective, which turned out to be about the same as the governor’s. Their Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Eskimos and other indigenous people, holds the rights to about 5 million oil rich acres.
In a six-figure political ad, the group described Arctic energy development as “vital,” and warned Alaskans that “Washington policies threaten our survival and our economy.” Over images of activists in kayaks in the waters around a Shell drilling rig, the voiceover decried “outsiders," presumably like Obama himself.
They “try to speak for Alaskans," the spot warned. They just don't get it.