Obama Uses Arctic Trip to Hammer Republicans on Climate Change

The president says the melting Arctic shows that global warming is real -- and that the GOP is in denial about its causes and impact.


President Barack Obama went to Alaska Monday to showcase how climate change’s once-future threats have become part and parcel of everyday life in the Arctic, which is being ravaged by rising temperatures, surging seas, melting permafrost, and raging wildfires. But the politics of 2016 weren’t far behind.

White House officials insist the trip will serve only the high-minded purpose of raising awareness about the impact of climate change. But the three-day visit will also help Obama and other Democrats score political points by contrasting their embrace of science and willingness to confront the threat posed by climate change with what they will paint as continued Republican refusals to acknowledge that humans are contributing to rising global temperatures — or to sign off on any steps to combat it.

“Climate change is no longer some far off problem, it is happening here. It is happening now,” Obama said Monday evening in Alaska. “The fact is that the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it.”

Obama’s visit, a first by a sitting president, coincides with a big international conference meant to jumpstart international action on climate change in the Arctic. The tortuously titled GLACIER conference (that’s Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement, and Resilience) will gather top diplomats from around the world, both from Arctic nations and countries such as China, which aspires to play an increasingly important role in that part of the world. That’s driven in part by the opening of the Northern Sea Route which can shave thousands of miles off transits between Asia and Europe.

The conference is part of a broader drive by the administration to push the publicize the issue of climate change in the Arctic, one of the corners of the world being hit the hardest — with significant economic, environmental, and geopolitical consequences — by rising temperatures. Earlier this year, while taking over leadership of the eight-nation Arctic Council, an international advisory body, the United States launched a small but important effort to curb emissions of soot. Also known as “black carbon,” soot plays an outsize role in helping warm the Arctic, with potentially disastrous consequences for the rest of the world because the ice caps help regulate global climate.

Obama reiterated that, for all the warning signs about global warming exemplified by the “leading indicator” of the Arctic, the world can manage to promote economic growth while keeping harmful emissions in check. While acknowledging U.S. historic responsibility for emissions, Obama said that major economies haven’t yet taken the necessary steps to curb emissions and called for a redoubled effort.

“I think the main message from Obama is that this is the canary in the coal mine, and if we don’t act, these kinds of cascading impacts could happen elsewhere, maybe even everywhere,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former White House adviser in the Clinton and Obama administrations and now head of Bledsoe Associates, a consultancy.

Even in distant Alaska, though, Obama’s eyes are firmly fixed on the 2016 presidential election. Potential Democratic candidates, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Senator Bernie Sanders, have long been outspoken climate hawks and have pledged to have the United States do more to curb its own greenhouse-gas emissions and help fight global warming by phasing out fossil fuels. With a huge climate confab later this year in Paris meant to help craft a global accord to tackle climate change, it is crunch time for major economies to take serious steps to reduce emissions.

But the Republican field has only doubled down on  the climate denial that took hold of the party after the 2008 election, when the GOP standard bearer, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, introduced legislation in the Senate to fight climate change. Candidates such as Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Scott Walker have vied to see who can express more skepticism about, or hostility towards, the scientific consensus that climate change is real. Trump tweeted that climate change is a Chinese hoax meant to help that country steal American manufacturing jobs, and told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that he doesn’t believe in man-made climate change because “I had uncles at M.I.T and stuff.” Sen. Cruz of Texas claims there’s no warming at all, and that climate scientists “cook the books” just like disgraced energy firm Enron. Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, has become an outlier in the party because he acknowledges not just rising temperatures, but also a human contribution. Still, he says, there’s no reason to be “alarmist” about it.

Obama took square aim at Republicans.  “We cannot deny the science,” Obama said. “The time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is surely passed.” He went further, with a message for the whole crowded field jostling to replace him: “Any leader who does not take this issue seriously, or treats it like a joke, is not fit to lead.”

“Everyone on earth agrees climate change is a big problem, with the sole exception of the Republican Party of the United States,” Bledsoe said. “It’s akin to Republican isolationism of the 1930s, and it could have that same kind of resonance,” he said, noting that the GOP’s stance on climate change erodes its international legitimacy.

But if Obama has a seemingly easy target in Republican skeptics, he’s become a target in his own right. Environmentalists are furious that he greenlighted oil exploration off the coast of Alaska; the first drill ships arrived off Wainwright this summer. While the Obama administration has hardly rolled out the red carpet for Shell’s Arctic adventure –it has taken the oil firm eight years to get this far– its decision to promote oil and gas exploration in the environmentally pristine Arctic has many supporters up in arms.

Obama has tried to deflect the criticism by stressing that domestic energy production, even in the delicate Arctic, can reduce imports of foreign oil, one his mantras since the 2008 campaign. And the current low price of crude oil makes large-scale Arctic drilling uneconomical any time soon, at any rate.

But it’s an uncomfortable reminder for Obama that, even as he tries to put climate change and its impacts front and center by highlighting Alaska’s travails, the established energy mix that the world has relied on for more than a century refuses to go gently into that good night.

Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

NOTE: This post was updated late Monday, Aug. 31.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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