Obama opens Alaska trip aiming to drive climate to forefront
President Barack Obama brought the power of the presidential pulpit to Alaska on Monday, aiming to thrust climate change to the forefront of the global agenda with a historic visit that will put the state's liquefying glaciers and sinking villages on graphic display.
During his three-day tour of Alaska, Obama planned to hike a glacier, converse with fishermen and tape a reality TV show with survivalist Bear Grylls — all part of a highly orchestrated White House campaign to illustrate how climate change has damaged the state's stunning landscape. The goal at each stop is to create powerful visuals that show real-world effects of climate change and drive home Obama's message that the crisis already has arrived.
After arriving mid-afternoon in Anchorage, Obama planned to meet with Alaska Natives before addressing a U.S.-sponsored summit on climate change and the Arctic. Later in the trip, Obama will become the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle when he visits Kotzebue — population 3,153 — to address the plight of Alaska Natives, who face dire economic conditions amid some of the worst effects of global warming.
"They don't get a lot of presidents in Kotzebue," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker quipped as he joined Obama for the seven-hour flight from Washington.
Aboard Air Force One, the White House unveiled a new National Park Service map bearing the name Denali where Mount McKinley used to be. As a prelude to the trip, Obama announced his administration was renaming the tallest mountain in North America and restoring its traditional Athabascan name, a move that drew applause from Alaska's leaders but harsh condemnations from Ohio politicians angry that Ohio native and former President William McKinley's name will be erased from the famed peak.
"You just don't go and do something like that," said Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate.
As he traverses Alaska this week, Obama has two audiences in mind: Alaskans, who are hungry for more energy development to boost the state's sagging oil revenues, and the broader public, whose focus Obama hopes to concentrate on the need for drastic action to combat global warming, including a climate treaty that Obama hopes will help solidify his environmental legacy.
Whether Obama can successfully navigate those two competing interests — energy and the environment — is the prevailing question of his trip.
The president has struggled to explain how his dire warnings and call to action to cut greenhouse gases square with other steps he's taken or allowed to expand energy production, including oil and gas. Environmental groups took particular offense at the administration's move to allow expanded drilling off Alaska's northwest coast — just a few weeks before coming to Alaska to preach on climate change.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president that Obama's all-of-the-above approach to energy aims to facilitate the longer-term transition to cleaner, renewable fuels. "Alaska is a place where that approach is on display," Earnest said.
Even Alaska Natives, who have echoed Obama's warnings about environmental changes, have urged him to allow more oil and gas to be sucked out of Alaska's soil and waters. Alaska faces a roughly $3.5 billion deficit this year as a result of falling oil prices, forcing state budget cuts that have wreaked havoc on rural services.
"History has shown us that the responsible energy development which is the lifeblood of our economy can exist in tandem with, and significantly enhance, our traditional way of life," leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Inupiat Eskimo shareholders, wrote Monday in a letter to Obama.
Following his speech Monday night, Obama was to board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Tuesday to tour Kenai Fjords National Park and to hike to Exit Glacier, a sprawling expanse of ice that is retreating amid warming temperatures. In southwest Alaska on Wednesday, Obama will meet with fishermen locked in conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest salmon fishery.