President Obama was in Alaska last week witnessing and warning of a warming world. After a powerful speech at an international Arctic conference hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry for foreign ministers, native leaders, and other dignitaries from 20 countries, President Obama toured the state to see staggering climate changes up close. The president’s Arctic sojourn, and his policies that affect the region, are destined to shape his climate change legacy in three important ways.
1. Driving a new global climate agreement and ambitious climate action
While in Alaska, the president hiked to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward to see first hand the rapid changes in a state that is warming twice as fast as the rest of the country. As temperatures spike, vast quantities of runoff from melting glaciers, ice caps, and ice sheets flow into the sea, which causes the global sea level to rise and puts nearly 3 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, at risk of severe flooding and erosion.
While speaking to foreign ministers in Anchorage, the president repeatedly cautioned that world leaders are not moving fast enough to curb climate change. In recent months, 30 nations, including the United States and China — plus the 28 members of the European Union — have announced emissions reduction goals. In August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled the final version of its Clean Power Plan, which calls for a 32 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. The plan is part of President Obama’s larger strategy to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2025, and could be the linchpin of his climate legacy.
Many acknowledge that this year’s emissions reduction pledges by countries will not be strong enough to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — the long-term goal of U.N. climate negotiations and the level scientists agree is the absolute limit for preventing unmanageable climate changes. In his Alaska travelogue, the president echoed a message that he delivered forcefully two days earlier to foreign ministers: “When it comes to climate change, I believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that moment is almost here…it’s my hope that decades and decades from now, when this generation has long since left the planet, we will have acted decisively…We will have lived up to our own words — that our best days are still ahead.”
To turn this hope into reality, world leaders must usher a quick transition away from coal and other fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind and solar. They must also secure in Paris this December a global climate pact that locks in a solid process for countries to regularly raise the ambition of their emissions reduction goals. The president’s urgent call to action from Alaska is likely to bolster his climate change legacy by jumpstarting the U.N. climate negotiations this fall and increasing the probability of success in Paris.
2. Helping imperiled communities avert climate catastrophe
After visiting Alaska’s vanishing glaciers, the president traveled to the small native fishing town of Dillingham and the tightly-knit native community of Kotzubue in the Arctic. In both communities, the president witnessed the determination of Alaska Natives to maintain their traditional hunting and fishing cultures and build sustainable economies. He also saw the real risks these communities confront daily, from thawing permafrost and shrinking sea-ice that once shielded many coastal towns from punishing storms, to threatened salmon, walrus, and seal populations and hunting seasons that underpin Alaska Native subsistence economies and way of life.
The president described flying over Kivalina, a small coastal community that is rapidly receding and at risk of being completely consumed by rising seas: “For many of those Alaskans, it’s no longer a question of if they’re going to relocate, but when.”
In 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that flooding and erosion affected 184 out of 213 Alaska Native villages, or 86 percent. Alarmingly, what is happening in Alaska reflects a much wider trend in the United States and globally of a growing number of people displaced by more extreme weather and other climate change effects.
To help native villages in Alaska build resilience to climate change, the president announced a more than $35 million package of federal support for water infrastructure, resilience planning, and energy efficiency and renewable energy. The president also called on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop principles to ensure that support for communities opting to move away from high-risk areas is equitable for low-income families, people of color and others with high exposure to climate change risks. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will refine disaster assistance guidance for native communities in consultation with tribes to better acknowledge their ‘unique circumstances’ — in many cases, climate change does not just threaten homes but also their cultures and way of life. The new guidance should remove barriers that often prevent native communities in the midst of slow-onset climate disaster — such as Kivalina and Kotzebue — from receiving needed support.
These initiatives build on the community resilience pillar of the president’s Climate Action Plan and other recent resilience announcements by the White House to help reduce climate risks in low-income communities. While these resilience actions are not enough to eliminate climate change threats in Alaska and around the country, they are steps toward helping climate-imperiled communities that are likely to enhance the president’s climate change legacy.
3. Allowing risky offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean
At striking odds with the above strides to reduce climate change risks is the Department of Interior’s (DOI’s) decision to let Royal Dutch Shell move ahead with exploratory oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Shell’s 2012 Arctic drilling attempt ended with a rig running aground on an island in the Gulf of Alaska.
The president has rightly set aside Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas leasing — a move that will safeguard waters that help provide 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood. The president also designated 9.8 million acres in the ecologically-rich waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea as off limits to offshore development. In addition, he asked Congress to designate as wilderness the Coastal Plain and other core areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — home to caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, and other wildlife.
DOI officials insist that offshore oil and gas activities are held to the highest safety and environmental standards. Even so, DOI estimates that future oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast “brings with it a 75-percent chance of one or more spills of more than 1,000 barrels of oil.” In a recent Newsweek op-ed, former EPA Administrator Carol Browner and CAP Ocean Policy Director Michael Conathan describe the dangers of offshore development in the Arctic Ocean, including “regular hurricane-force winds, errant icebergs and 30 foot swells” that make the area “unsafe for exploration.” Absent from Alaska’s North Slope is the infrastructure needed to respond to an oil spill — including adequate roads, a large airport, deep water ports and shipyards. Even if Congress funds the president’s proposal to accelerate by two years the acquisition of a new icebreaker — by 2020 instead of 2022 — and to plan the construction of additional ones, it would only narrow, not close, the U.S. emergency response capacity gap in this remote and harsh region.
Experts estimate that if the oil and gas that is believed to be recoverable in Alaska’s Arctic is extracted and burned it would emit nearly 16 billion metric tons of CO2 — more than double total U.S. CO2 emissions in 2013. For this reason, scientists say that all of the Arctic’s oil and gas resources — and globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves, and over 80 percent of coal reserves — must be kept in the ground or under the sea to avoid unmanageable climate changes.
Allowing offshore oil and gas development and their associated emissions in a region where drilling risks run unacceptably high is out of step with the president’s larger strategy to tackle climate change. Like oil-coated waves crashing into a pristine Arctic coastline, Shell moving forward with oil and gas production in the Arctic could irreparably sully the president’s otherwise strong environmental legacy.
Cathleen Kelly is a Senior Fellow at American Progress specializing in international and U.S. climate mitigation and resilience.