President Obama will talk the climate talk this week in Alaska, but we …

President Obama Will Talk The Climate Talk This Week In Alaska, But We ...

Losing one battle won’t make these protesters go away.

Today, President Obama will begin his three-day trip to Alaska. In an Aug.

13 video1 released by the White House, the trip was billed as a climate-change visit. It will include a trek across the ice of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and a visit to Kotzebue2, a city on an island gravel spit 30 miles above the Arctic Circle where the effects of global warming are particularly stark.

About 3,200 people live there, three-fourths of whom are Inupiat, who before Europeans arrived, called the place Qikiqtagruk, “almost an island.”

On the first day of his trip, the president will deliver the keynote address at the State Department’s Arctic conference in Anchorage where a dozen foreign ministers and hundreds of others participants will be in attendance. As always, we can expect to hear some stirring, well-targeted oratory, expanding on what Obama said in that brief video as well as in his most recent Saturday address to the nation:

I m going because Alaskans are on the front lines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century climate change … What s happening in Alaska isn t just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don t take action. It s our wakeup call.

The alarm bells are ringing. And as long as I m president, America will lead the world to meet this threat before it s too late.

As many environmental activists point out, however, there’s sometimes a chasm between what Obama says and the actions he takes or does not take.

Just four days after that video was released the administration issued the final permit3 to allow Shell Oil to drill its first exploratory well in the Arctic in 24 years. This was done despite an article by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins in Nature4 noting that development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

More commentary on the president’s visit can be found beneath the melting orange permafrost.

It is indeed the mixed message Obama will be delivering this week at a time when the other Arctic nations, Russia foremost among them, are eagerly planning to extract minerals and hydrocarbons from those parts of the region they claim sovereignty over.

The progressive group Credo, often an activist partner of Daily Kos, responded5 last Thursday by releasing a mash-up video of its own taking issue with the president: Here s your wake-up call, Mr.

President. Climate leaders don t drill the Arctic. Here’s the whole thing:

The president’s argument is that even though the renewable energy sources he has pushed will “ultimately” replace fossil fuels, right now the U.S.

depends on prodigious amounts of foreign oil, though less than it did when Obama took office thanks to fracking, an extraction technique with its own set of environmental problems.

As long as we continue to use oil, Obama says, we should obtain it from domestic sources, not buy it abroad. The view of the United States Geological Survey is that something like 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil and 30 percent of its natural gas lies below the Arctic Ocean floor, with 26 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 130 trillion cubic feet of natural gas off the Alaskan coast alone.

These hydrocarbons have, ironically, only become accessible because the fossil fuel-driven global warming that promises to devastate life on the planet has reduced the amount of Arctic summer sea ice, which previously made drilling impossible.

While there’s every good reason for ending American dependence on sources of petroleum such as Saudi Arabia, whose leaders have used a portion of their nation’s oil revenue to spread an extremist version of Islam, the greater danger is the continuing dependence on oil itself at a time when it’s clear that most of the world’s hydrocarbons cannot be burned if there is any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

When Richard Nixon first intoned the need for “energy independence,” meaning independence not from oil but from foreign oil, human-caused climate change was scarcely on anybody’s radar. Today, with every molecule of CO2 emitted putting us that much closer to disaster, becoming “independent” by extracting unconventional oil with risky techniques from delicate ecosystems makes no sense at all.

President Obama will be hearing quite a different message from many Alaskan politicians the next three days.

For example, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and independent Gov. Bill Walker, were heartened by the announcement that Shell, the fourth largest corporation in the world, had obtained its drilling permit.

Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, said6 Arctic oil development “will create jobs and provide a badly needed long-term supply of oil for the Trans-Alaska pipeline.”

But both were infuriated at Obama’s decision7 in April to give the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wilderness status and to prohibit future oil and gas drilling on the Arctic Coastal plain as well as limits on new leases (like Shell’s) in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Murkowski said he was killing Alaska with those decisions.

Without a doubt, the Alaskan economy is suffering. The bottom on global oil prices has not been reached and oil production in Prudhoe Bay is only providing a fourth as much oil for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as at the peak.

That means fewer jobs and less revenue for the Alaskan government, which has always been heavily dependent on federal dollars to stay afloat. Walker told Kirk Johnson at The New York Times about the president’s visit:

I d show him the number of employees we ve laid off, the troopers we ve laid off, the trooper stations we ve closed, the brand-new helicopters that we re putting into storage taking the blades off because we can t afford to operate them on search and rescue, said Mr. Walker, a former lawyer and businessman who was elected last year as a political independent. It s real, and it s not a slight adjustment. …


Walker, in an interview in his Anchorage office, said he planned to press Mr. Obama to loosen restrictions on exploration and to pledge support for a natural gas pipeline. More broadly, Mr.

Walker said, he hoped to help the president understand Alaska s dependence, because of climate and geography, on what can be extracted from the land or sea.

Typically, it’s a recipe for economy over environment, ignoring the fact the two are not separate entities but inextricably bound to one another.

To be fair, Obama has done more for renewable energy, conservation and fuel efficiency than any of his predecessors, including President Carter. It wasn’t until the stimulus program passed in February 2009 that federal support for research, development and commercialization of renewables surpassed Carter’s last budget when adjusted for inflation. And it surpassed it more than marginally.

As New York magazine opined9 May 5 this year:

The second way to measure Obama s climate-change record is: What has he done?

He has done quite a bit, probably far more than you think, and not all of it advertised as climate legislation, or advertised as much of anything at all. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was many things primarily, a desperate bid to shove money into enough Americans pockets to prevent another Great Depression but one of them was a major piece of environmental reform. The law contained upwards of $90 billion in subsidies for green energy, which had a catalyzing effect on burgeoning industries.

American wind-power generation has doubled, and solar power has increased more than six times over. As Time magazine s Michael Grunwald detailed in his book The New New Deal, the new law suddenly transformed the Department of Energy, previously a sclerotic backwater charged mainly with overseeing the nuclear-weapons cache, into a massive new engine of cutting-edge environmental science.

The stimulus had the misfortune of absorbing the brunt of the public s dismay with the economic crisis, and Republicans successfully turned Solyndra, an anomalous case of a green-energy subsidy that went bust, into a symbol that rendered the whole law so unpopular Democrats quickly grew afraid to tout it. Even a close observer like Lemann has forgotten that it was indeed major environmental legislation.

And yet, the wave of innovation new fuels, plus turbines, energy meters, and other futuristic devices will reverberate for years. Envia Systems, a stimulus-financed clean-energy firm in Silicon Valley, has developed technology for electric-car batteries three times as efficient as the technology in the Volt, capable of shaving $5,000 off the sticker price of an electric car when it comes to market in 2015. Just a few weeks ago, the Times reported on a new stimulus-financed research project to increase the energy content (and thus reduce the emissions) of natural gas.

Had Republicans not stood in the way, it’s obvious that even more could have been done.

And more very much needs to be.

While the climate-change deniers and fossil-fuel marionettes did much to slow progress in expanding renewables and the infrastructure to support them, as well as opposing the administration’s modest Clean Power Plan, Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach has done its own damage.

Most of all, it has instilled the notion that we can ever so gradually move from today’s system to tomorrow’s.

In fact, if there is any chance of stabilizing the climate, of limiting the worst hits from global warming from rising sea levels and the harm that warming and acidifying seas may do to the planet’s food chain to desertification and extreme weather events we need to be pedal-to-the-metal not just in the transition to renewables but also in the controlling of greenhouse gas emissions from the sources of energy those renewables will replace. Current plans, however well-intentioned and headed in the right direction they may be, won’t do the job.

In an interview with Democracy Now noted by Paul Rosenberg in his recent Salon commentary10 on neoliberal environmentalists, Naomi Klein noted11 in reference to the Clean Power Plan:

I think that what we re seeing from Obama is a really good example of what a climate leader sounds like. But I m afraid we ve got a long way to go before we see what a climate leader acts like, because there is a huge gap the measures that have been unveiled are simply inadequate.

President Obama has 16 months left in office.

It’s been encouraging to hear him talk so aggressively about climate change since June 2013 after mostly avoiding the phrase during his first term and his campaign for reelection.

For his remaining time in office, given the fierce urgency of dealing with this climate change right damn now, perhaps Obama could take a page from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat who has given a speech on climate change every week the Senate has been in session for more than two years.

Not just a weekly presidential speech addressing another aspect of the worst crisis humans have faced since they left Africa, but one which proposes hard-nosed policies to do something that is adequate. Except for policies that he can enact by executive order, none of these proposals will, of course, get through the denier and delayer caucuses of Congress.

But just proposing and publicizing such policies, and doing so repeatedly, could set the stage for the next president to jettison the myopic all-of-the-above approach that currently spurs more drilling instead of curtailing it.


  1. ^ video (
  2. ^ Kotzebue (
  3. ^ issued the final permit (
  4. ^ article by Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins in Nature (
  5. ^ responded (
  6. ^ said (
  7. ^ decision (
  8. ^ Walker told Kirk Johnson (
  9. ^ opined (
  10. ^ commentary (
  11. ^ noted (

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