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Obama in Alaska warns 'we're not moving fast enough' on climate change

In a glaring, unusually grim speech, President Obama made a sweeping call for grander ambition in the face of climate change. Or else.

President Barack Obama late Monday issued a blunt, borderline apocalyptic call for global action on climate change, rallying world leaders to reach an agreement this year or  “condemn our children to a world they will no longer have the capacity to repair.”

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” the President said in Anchorage, Alaska, addressing an international conference on the Arctic. “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.”

In a glaring, unusually grim speech, Obama made a sweeping call for grander American ambition in the face of climate change. But he also sought to spur a deeper mobilization worldwide. Four times in a 24-minute speech he warned “we’re not moving fast enough,” noting that “none of the nations represented here are moving fast enough.” 

Related: Obama climate change message undercut by Arctic drilling green light

He hopes to change that fact on a three-day swing through the state, using the “God-given majesty of this place”—and the dramatic fire, erosion, and melting it faces as the planet warms—to drive support for a radical reduction of heat-trapping emissions. 

Not coincidentally, the trip comes as another group of officials gather in Bonn, Germany this week—the last negotiating session before a United Nations climate change summit in Paris in December. Again and again in his remarks, President Obama sought to drive a stake through the heart of the problems still haunting those talks. 

He had particularly strong words for the dwindling but still dangerously large number of elected officials who deny the science or hope to delay action in response to it. Many of those officials are leaders of major oil and gas producing countries. Many others are members of congress. 

“If we do nothing to keep glaciers from melting, and forests from burning we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their repair,” the president said, summing images of “entire industries of people who can't practice livelihoods, desperate refugees, political disruptions that could trigger conflicts around the world.”

“Any leader willing to take a gamble on a future like that,” he continued, “any so-called leader who doesn't take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke is not fit to lead. On this issue, of all issues, there's such a thing as being too late.”

And yet the United Nations climate change negotiations are behind schedule and progressing slowly. The 80-odd-pages of draft text will need to be paired down dramatically, but in two prior gatherings this year it was cut by only four pages. Virtually the entire document remains in brackets, which signals it is subject to debate, including the first word (“Preamble”) and a critical 19-page section that deals with emissions, and thus the future habitability of the earth. 

In calling for stepped-up progress, President Obama joins a distinguished club of justifiably alarmed world leaders, including lead UN climate negotiator Christiana Figueres, the European Union’s climate chief Miguel Arias Cañete, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon. In a recent speech, he complained that all the “key political issues are still on the table.”

Those include the question of money. How much will the world’s rich nations, which did the most to create this problem, pay the developing nations who are expected to be hit the hardest by the changes? And what will those developing nations do with the money? Is the cash for mitigation or adaptation, retaining walls to keep the sea at bay or solar farms to slow its rise?  

They also include fundamental questions. What will happen to the oil of Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, the U.S. Arctic circle? Will be stranded? If so, who will pay to keep it in the ground? 

Above all, the question at hand is what will happen to the global economy? Fossil fuel warmed the planet, but it also built the skyline of every city on earth. It’s blessing is present in every paycheck, every hospital, every modern comfort. Can solar and wind and alternative energies keep raising standards of living? 

Absolutely, said President Obama. “It will not be easy,” he admitted. “But we've got to walk the walk. We've got work to do and we've got to do it together.”