WASHINGTON — Shrinking glaciers, Arctic temperatures and a mix of messy energy politics await President Barack Obama on his trip to Alaska, where he will become the first sitting president to step foot in the Arctic Circle.
Obama departed Monday morning for a three-day tour of the largest U.S. state, aiming to call attention to the ways Obama says climate change is already damaging Alaska’s stunning scenery. By showcasing thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and eroding shorelines, Obama hopes to raise a sense of urgency to slow climate change in the U.S. and overseas.
Even before he departed, Obama was making waves with a decision to rename Alaska’s famed Mount McKinley despite a backlash.
The gesture was a major show of solidarity with the Alaska Arctic’s native people, who have received less attention amid Obama’s recent efforts to improve conditions for Native Americans in the mainland U.S.
Obama announced that his administration is changing the name of North America’s tallest peak, the 20,320-foot (6,193-meter) Mount McKinley, to Denali, its traditional Athabascan name.
Obama’s move to strip the mountain of its name honouring former President William McKinley, who was assassinated, drew loud condemnations from lawmakers in his native state of Ohio.
Obama administration will work with officials in Ohio “to find an appropriate way to acknowledge President McKinley’s contributions to our country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. On the plane to Alaska, he showed off new National Park Service maps with the mountain designated as Denali.
Yet Obama was to navigate far more turbulent political waters in Anchorage, where his grand declarations on climate change have been met with skepticism by leaders in a state that’s heavily dependent on oil revenues, which have fallen precipitously.
At the same time, environmental groups warned that Obama hadn’t done enough to protect Alaska and the climate. They took particular offence at his administration’s move just a few weeks ago to give Royal Dutch Shell a final permit for expanded drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast.
“I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well,” Obama said in his weekly address. Yet he said the U.S. economy still had to rely on oil and gas while it transitions to cleaner renewable fuels, and said his administration was ensuring those risks were minimized.
Obama was to hold a listening session with Alaska Natives before speaking at a climate-focused Arctic summit, which involves leaders from Arctic and non-Arctic nations.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are intensely focused on a global climate treaty that nations hope to finalize in December, as the president works to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office.
Obama has pledged a U.S. cut in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 28 per cent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and planned to use the Alaska visit to press other nations to commit to similarly ambitious measures.
Kerry told reporters in Alaska on Sunday that climate change skeptics won’t be remembered kindly.
“I think the people who are slow to come to this table will be written up by historians as having been some of the folks most irresponsible in understanding and reacting to scientific analysis,” Kerry said.
Obama will also go on a boat tour Tuesday of Kenai Fjords National Park and to hike to Exit Glacier, a sprawling expanse of ice that is retreating, in what environmentalists say is a dramatic sign of warming temperatures.
In Dillingham, in southwest Alaska, Obama will meet Wednesday with fishermen locked in a conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery. Then he’ll fly north to Kotzebue in the Alaska Arctic to focus on the plight of rural, Native villages where livelihoods are threatened by climate change.