Alaska Becomes Backdrop as Obama's Climate Contradictions Laid Bare

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Alaska Becomes Backdrop as Obama's Climate Contradictions Laid Bare

Welcome gestures notwithstanding, there remains enormous gap 'between meaningful action to address climate change and continued exploration for remote and difficult hydrocarbon resources.'

(Photo: Wenjie Qiao/flickr/cc)

Though President Obama made headlines Sunday night by signing an executive order that officially renames Alaska's Mt. McKinley to Denali—the name used by Indigenous people and most Alaskan residents—his visit to the country's most northern state remains clouded for many by a contradictory stance in which he calls for strong climate action on one hand while simultaneously championing offshore Arctic drilling with the other.

In restoring Mt. McKinely's name as Denali—which at 20,320 feet is North America's tallest mountain—Obama was instating, as the Associated Press notes, a moniker Alaskans have informally used for centuries. The name means "the high one" in Athabascan.

With Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry now in Alaska for a three-day visit, however, the optics are a challenge to the two men who have used powerful speeches to indicate the administration's understanding of the threat posed by human-caused global warming, but continue to come up short, in the eyes of experts and environmental campaigners, when it comes to taking concrete steps.

As Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, expressed in an analysis on Sunday parsing the divisions between climate politics and climate physics, "the alarm [the president] is sounding is muffled by the fact that earlier this year he gave Shell Oil a permit to go drill in the Arctic, potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil."

And writing at the Washington Post on Monday, Chris Mooney points out that though Obama certainly has the power to rename a mountain, there is no executive order by itself that can stop the "loss of ice" experienced by Denali and the clear and present impacts climate change is having across Alaska's wild spaces in recent years.

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Taking to social media following the news about Denali, several users on Twitter—with varying degrees of charity—pointed out that even as the restitution of the mountain's name is welcomed by the Athabascan tribes and others, the gesture should not overshadow the inherent threat of offshore drilling in Alaska's pristine coastal waters:

In recent statements Obama has defended the drilling as economically necessary even as experts warn that a large-scale spill in the region is not only "inevitable," given the harsh conditions, but represents humanity's worst instincts when it comes to going after increasingly hard-to-reach fossil fuel deposits as a time when scientists are saying the majority of the world's untapped reserves must stay in the ground.

"There is a very obvious contradiction between meaningful action to address climate change and continued exploration for remote and difficult hydrocarbon resources," said Michael LeVine, Arctic campaigner for Oceana, ahead of Obama's arrival. "Moving forward with exploiting Arctic oil and gas is inconsistent with the Administration’s stated goal and meaningful action on climate change."

And as Hannah McKinnon, a writer and campaigner for Oil Change International, wrote just as Obama and Kerry touched down in Alaska on Sunday:

The Obama Administration is planning its energy policy on the basis that its own climate policy will fail (as well as any that comes in the coming years). It is reckless, disingenuous, and downright offensive to those living the impacts of climate change everyday around the world.

Scientists are clear that we must leave at least 80% of the fossil fuels we already have access to in the ground. Exploration and expansion of resources like the Arctic that wouldn’t come online for at least a decade is nothing short of climate denial.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry seem to get the urgent need to tackle climate change, at least on a rhetorical level. We have heard compelling speeches, seen noble policy efforts, and heard about the impact having children has had on the urgency felt to leave a strong climate legacy.

But until President Obama and Secretary Kerry actually work towards an end to exploration, expansion and production of oil, coal and gas that we clearly cannot afford to burn – their legacy threatens to ultimately be one of denial of what this crisis truly requires. Alaskans will undoubtedly be sharing compelling stories this week, and it is time for the President to listen, do what is right, and put an end to high risk Arctic oil exploration.  

The crux of the contradiction and Obama's dilemma, according to 350.org's McKibben, is that planetary warming driven by human activity does not conform to most other policy issues that lawmakers face. "Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with," he wrote, "the ones where compromise makes complete sense."

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