ANCHORAGE — As stage sets go, Alaska is a spectacular one: craggy mountain ranges, picturesque coastlines and iconic glaciers. President Obama arrived here Monday to use that backdrop for his message that climate change is not just a thing of the future but something well underway in the nation’s largest state.
“The point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem,” Obama told an international meeting on Arctic issues Monday night. “It is happening here and is happening now.”
But despite the geological props — what the president called “the God-given majesty of this place” — Alaska may not be the perfect setting for Obama’s message. The state also perfectly reflects the cacophony of disputes over rival claims to international sea borders, how best to tap the Arctic’s resources and how to handle growing traffic along northern shipping routes. Those huge financial and economic stakes complicate the president’s arguments about the urgency of combating climate change.
Obama will try to focus on the climate not conflict, but the reality has more often been a scramble for the Arctic’s rich reserves of oil, natural gas and coveted minerals. Even Alaska’s own politicians and Native American corporations want to be free to develop more of the state’s resources.
There has been a confluence of climate-related events in Alaska recently: more frequent and massive wildfires, bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, swift shoreline erosion, and melting permafrost.
Obama said that Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the world over the past 60 years and warned that without more aggressive action, “we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.”
Rising temperatures, melting permafrost and wildfires could create a dangerous feedback loop, experts say. Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant and onetime climate staff member under President Bill Clinton, said Alaska provides Obama an opportunity to argue that “this is a canary-in-the-coal-mine moment.”
On Tuesday, Obama will tour Seward’s Exit Glacier, which has retreated 1.25 miles in recent years. He will spend time hiking the glacier with Bear Grylls for the British adventurer’s “Running Wild” television series, although some things Grylls suggested were rejected by the Secret Service, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
On Wednesday, Obama will visit Bristol Bay, a major sockeye-salmon source whose waters are warming, and the Arctic town of Kotzebue, which has experienced serious coastal erosion and retreating sea ice. His stop in Kotzebue will make him the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Arctic, home to 4 million people from the United States and other nations.
Some environmentalists say that Obama has been inconsistent in his Alaska policy. During his visit, Royal Dutch Shell, armed with permits from the Interior Department, will be drilling an oil-exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s Arctic coast, one of many oil and mineral ventures being planned in the rich, largely unexplored region.
Environmentalists had urged Obama to block Shell’s project, arguing that continued-use oil exploration contributes to increased climate change.
“The timing of the trip is ironic,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “The president will be in a state and a region whose economy and environment is jeopardized by his permit to allow Shell to drill in the area.”
The president has defended his decision to let Shell go ahead, saying that while the United States transitions to more renewable fuels, it will still need to tap oil, and that it is better to rely on U.S. sources and insist on environmental safeguards.
Many of Alaska’s Republicans and Native American groups are also eager for development — especially because a combination of declining oil production and plunging oil prices has opened a gaping hole in the state’s budget, which last year relied on the petroleum industry for about two-thirds of its revenue.
Although they support Obama’s decision to give Shell a green light, they would like him to spend money on new ice breakers and expand ports to support new drilling and mining ventures. The United States has just two ice breakers, including one devoted largely to scientific research; a new one could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The Coast Guard’s fleet is small, too, and not up to the task of patrolling the state’s 6,640 miles of coastline.
On Monday, the White House said it would accelerate by two years, to 2020, plans to build a new ice breaker, begin planning for additional ice breakers, and ask Congress to provide the funding.
The president faces international tensions as well. As large chunks of Alaska’s ice retreat, other nations are looking to advance. On Aug. 3, Moscow filed a massive claim with the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf; if approved, it would expand Russia’s Arctic territory by more than 463,000 square miles. In March, Russia held a military exercise that involved more than 45,000 troops, 15 submarines and 41 warships. And Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s new Arctic Commission, slipped up to an Arctic area claimed by Norway, visited a Russian research station and declared via Twitter that the Arctic was “Russia’s Mecca.”
Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warns in a report of a political “ice curtain” descending, giving new meaning to the phrase “cold war.”
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, rode out from Washington on Air Force One with Obama and told reporters that he and others in the state are worried about Russia’s military buildup, given that is it only one mile away by sea and 2.6 miles by land.
“They’re reopening 10 bases and building four more, and they’re all in the Arctic, so here we are in the middle of the pond, feeling a little bit uncomfortable with the [U.S.] military drawdown,” he said.
Some experts question the significance of Russia’s aggressive posture. The nation is buying more than a dozen vessels capable of breaking through ice, and it wants to reopen 51 bases along its Arctic Coast, most closed since the end of the Soviet era. But only 41 ships made international transits along that route last year, down from 71 the year before.
Lawson Brigham, a former Coast Guard captain who is now a professor of Arctic policy at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said that commercial shipping in the Arctic will remain a “niche” business for decades. He said that even if summer ice disappears over the next 25 years, it will remain impractical to pass through Arctic waters for nine months of the year.
Yet Russia is not alone in the scramble for the Arctic, which holds not only vast oil and gas resources but also nickel, zinc, palladium, iron ore and rare-earth minerals. In early August, for example, the Baffinland iron mine in Canada’s Arctic dispatched its first shipment of iron ore to Germany.
On Monday night, Obama told foreign ministers and other experts who belong to the Arctic Council, currently chaired by the United States, that “we’re not moving fast enough and none of the nations represented here are moving fast enough.” The council includes eight countries, six indigenous communities and 32 observers. Technically, this is not an Arctic Council session, but all the same players are here for the Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER).
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who convened the meeting here in Anchorage with the hope of fostering cooperation, invited foreign ministers, but Russia’s Sergei Lavrov backed out.
“People in Alaska have been griping for a long time, with good reason, that the U.S. and Washington doesn’t appreciate that the U.S. is an Arctic nation,” said David Hayes, who served as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary during Obama’s first term and helped lead the agency’s Arctic work. “The president’s trip will spread the word that the U.S. is an Arctic nation. That alone is huge.”
Some Republicans grumble about how presidents pay attention to Alaska when they want to set aside land, as Obama did in January when he set aside 12 million acres in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“We just hope he doesn’t come up here and set the whole place aside,” said Mead Treadwell, a Republican who served as the state’s lieutenant governor.
Treadwell, now president of Pt Capital, a private-equity fund seeking investment opportunities in the Arctic, said that even if the president achieved all his climate policy goals before leaving office, it would not change the reality on the ground in Alaska.
Hajo Eicken, a sea-ice expert and professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, said that it would take “substantial time” for Arctic sea-ice cover to rebound even if global emissions dropped sharply.
“But at the same time,” he said, “from a broader global perspective, you wouldn’t say it’s too late to take action.”