Obama Makes Urgent Appeal in Alaska for Climate Change Action

Source: By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS and STEVEN LEE MYERS, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott of Alaska hugged Gov. Bill Walker, back to camera, after President Obama arrived Monday in Anchorage. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times 

ANCHORAGE — President Obama on Monday issued a global call for urgent action to address climate change, declaring that the United States was partly to blame for what he called the defining challenge of the century and would rally the world to counter it.

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” Mr. Obama said here at an international conference on the Arctic. “We’re not acting fast enough. I have come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and its second-largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating the problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.”

In remarks that bordered on the apocalyptic, Mr. Obama warned that the effects of global warming that have hit the Arctic the hardest would soon engulf the world — submerging entire countries, annihilating cities and leaving fields barren — unless more was done to reduce emissions. Four times in a 24-minute speech, he repeated his assertion that “we’re not acting fast enough.”

The president spoke at the beginning of a three-day Alaska trip choreographed to lend vivid visual justification — in the form of receding glaciers, eroded shorelines and rising seas — to his drive for an international accord to reduce heat-trapping emissions leading up to a United Nations summit meeting in Paris in December.

Mr. Obama has pledged that the United States will cut emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025. After winning a similar pledge last year from China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the president hopes to reach what Secretary of State John Kerry, the host of the conference, called “a truly ambitious and truly global climate agreement.”

“This year, in Paris,” the president said, “has to be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.”

Mr. Obama wants his fight against climate change to be a central piece of his legacy, and he planned this week’s journey with history in mind.

He will hike Exit Glacier in the Kenai Mountains of southern Alaska on Tuesday and tour it by boat, meeting up along the way with Bear Grylls, the wilderness survivalist, to tape a segment for his NBC program, “Running Wild With Bear Grylls.” On Wednesday, the president will meet with fishermen in Dillingham, known as the salmon capital of the world, and travel to Kotzebue, above the Arctic Circle, in a region where climate change has contributed to coastal erosion that is causing villages to crumble.

On Monday, Mr. Obama offered no new proposals in his speech to foreign ministers at a convention center in downtown Anchorage, nor did he address the contradictions in choosing Arctic Alaska, where he has just approved offshore oildrilling by Royal Dutch Shell, for his call to action on the climate.

Protesters lined the streets outside the conference center on Monday, holding a yellow flag with Shell’s logo that said “Hell, no!” along with a giant banner that said “Save the Arctic.” In a state that is heavily dependent on oil revenue, the issue is divisive, with environmental activists opposing Arctic drilling but many residents and officials saying it is a matter of survival.

In his speech, Mr. Obama defended his record on climate change and laid out his case for the stringent carbon emissions rules he announced in August.

“We are working hard to do our part to meet this challenge, and in doing so, we’re proving that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth,” Mr. Obama said, taking on an argument often cited by industry leaders and opponents of pollution limits.

And he offered scathing criticism of those who question the need for such measures or deny the science behind them, making an implicit dig at Republican presidential candidates. “Those who want to ignore the science, they are increasingly alone,” Mr. Obama said. “They’re on their own shrinking island.”

He also challenged what he suggested was complacency by ordinary citizens who fear they could be deprived of creature comforts. “Let’s be honest; there’s always been an argument against taking action,” Mr. Obama said. “We don’t want our lifestyles disrupted. The irony, of course, is that few things will disrupt our lives as profoundly as climate change.”

In a particularly striking warning, Mr. Kerry said in a speech earlier on Monday that climate change — reflected by what he called “seismic changes” in temperatures and sea levels — could soon create waves of new refugees forced to abandon traditional homes or to fight for food and water.

“You think migration is a challenge to Europe today because of extremism, wait until you see what happens when there’s an absence of water, an absence of food or one tribe fighting against another for mere survival,” Mr. Kerry said.

He compared the scale of the challenge to World War II, when “all of Europe was overrun by evil and civilization itself seemed to be in peril,” and said world leaders needed to rise to the occasion to address it.

The conference — and Mr. Obama’s visit — reflect a growing focus on the Arctic as the changing climate creates economic opportunities but also intensifies threats to the environment, to infrastructure and to old ways of life for the four million people who live above the Arctic Circle.

The United States and many of the nations represented issued a joint statement on Monday afternoon reiterating promises to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, including methane, and of the soot, or black carbon, from industry, automobiles and open fires. China and India did not sign the statement.

Mr. Kerry was accompanied by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the White House’s director of science and technology, John P. Holdren. Dr. Holdren presented a bleak, dispassionate report on diminished glaciers, melting permafrost, rising sea levels and the spread of wildfires that, he said, had already burned 31 million acres this year in Alaska, Canada and Russia.

“Fires are now occurring in the tundra, which didn’t used to happen,” he said.

If emissions are not reduced, Dr. Holdren said, temperatures could rise seven degrees, far above the threshold at which scientists predict drastic and potentially deadly consequences.