Obama, Visiting Arctic, Will Pledge Aid to Alaskans Hit by Climate Change

Source: , New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 2, 2015

ANCHORAGE — President Obama on Wednesday will pledge to step up government aid for Arctic communities whose shorelines and infrastructure are crumbling as warming seas melt their foundations, intensifying his administration’s effort to cope with the effects of climate change where they are being felt most acutely.

Venturing north of the Arctic Circle to Kotzebue, where he will become the first sitting president to visit Arctic Alaska, Mr. Obama will announce federal grant programs to help villages there cope with coastal erosion and high energy costs, and, in some extreme cases, relocate altogether, the White House said.

“In Arctic Alaska, villages are being damaged by powerful storm surges, which, once held at bay by sea ice, are battering the barrier islands where those villages sit,” the White House said in a statement describing the programs. “Alaska Native traditions that have set the rhythm of life in Alaska for thousands of years are being upended by decreasing sea-ice cover and changing seasonal patterns.”

The announcements came as Mr. Obama prepared to wrap up a three-day trip to Alaska aimed at raising public awareness about climate change by highlighting its effects in an area where they are manifested most quickly and profoundly. In a speech to an Arctic conference on Monday, the president called for urgent action to reverse the trend, repeatedly saying that the United States and other nations were not acting swiftly enough on a problem that is growing exponentially.

On Tuesday in Kenai Fjords National Park, Mr. Obama hiked to Exit Glacier — which has receded more than a mile over the past 200 years, but has hastened considerably in recent decades — to bear witness to the change. He called the receding glacier “a signpost” of the impact of the planet’s warming, and he said he wanted his grandchildren to be able to see it one day.

But on Wednesday, he is set to travel to a place where the issue is an everyday crisis. Kotzebue built a sea wall in 2012 to deal with the storm surges brought on by the loss of sea ice, and it sits near other villages that have been damaged by soil erosion induced by the disappearance of permafrost, which can cause sinkholes and other damage. Some residents have proposed moving their entire communities inland.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to announce that the Denali Commission, the federal agency that coordinates government assistance to communities in Alaska, would oversee short- and long-term programs to safeguard and repair the coastal villages, including “voluntary relocation efforts, where appropriate.”

The assistance package will include new grant programs from the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for water and waste projects in vulnerable Alaskan villages. In addition, the White House said, the Energy Department will announce initiatives to help remote Alaskan communities and native tribes develop clean-energy programs to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. The Denali Commission also plans to award $15.5 million in grants to upgrade power systems in rural parts of the state.

The administration also plans to release new data and mapping tools to track climate change and help communities prepare for it.