Obama Says Climate Changing Faster Than Efforts to Address It

US President Barack Obama speaks at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) Conference in the Denaina Civic and Convention Center on August 31, 2015 in Anchorage, Alaska.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama pledged the U.S. will combat the “urgent and growing threat of climate change” and take measures to address the impact of warming temperatures on the Arctic.

Climate change will “define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other challenge,’” the president said Monday at a State Department conference in Alaska that brought together representatives of more than a dozen nations with interests in the Arctic region. Warming temperatures are already disrupting agricultural and ecosystems and threatening human health and safety, he said.

“The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it,” he told the meeting in Anchorage. “That, ladies and gentlemen, must change.”

Obama is touring Alaska, a trip that includes the first presidential visit above the Arctic circle, to meet with Americans who he said are experiencing firsthand the impact of rapidly melting Arctic ice and to to focus attention on environmental issues ahead of global climate talks in Paris at the end of the year.

Obama said the Arctic region, and Alaska in particular, are on the “leading edge” of climate change. Temperatures in the state have risen twice as fast as global averages, and wildfires this year have consumed more than five million acres, roughly the size of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, melting ice is causing sea levels to rise and threatens the state’s coastal villages.

Ripple Effect

“It’s already changing the way Alaskans live,” Obama said. “And considering the Arctic’s unique role in influencing the global climate, it’s going to accelerate changes to the way we all live.”

Alaska Governor Bill Walker echoed that concern in an interview aboard Air Force One. He said climate change is causing “real impacts to rural Alaska,” noting shoreline erosion and flooding that threatened tribal villages. He also said thinning ice had threatened native whaling and fishing.

Obama took a swipe at world leaders who’ve been reluctant to go along with emissions limits and some of the Republicans vying to replace him in the Oval Office in next year’s election, who have questioned the science on climate change.

“Any so-called leader who doesn’t take this issue seriously, or worse, treats it like a joke, simply isn’t fit to lead at all,” Obama said.

Native Tribes

Before speaking at the State Department-sponsored conference of foreign ministers, scientists and scholars from more than a dozen countries with interests in the Arctic region, the president met with local politicians and tribal leaders in Anchorage.

The day before he left Washington, the administration announced that the federal government will change the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley to Denali, the moniker long used by the state’s native population.

The White House described the name change, which has been sought by Alaska officials for four decades, as a recognition of native tribes at a time that climate change was threatening their way of life.

The mountain, which was named for future 25th president William McKinley by a prospector in 1896, is believed to be central to the Athabascan tribe’s creation story and a culturally significant site to many Alaska natives, the White House said.

Coastal Erosion

As one illustration of the effect of climate change, Obama will visit the town of Kotzebue on Alaska’s northwest coast -- population 3,201, as of the 2010 Census -- where local tribes are concerned about the impact of coastal erosion on their communities.

Additionally, he’ll tour glaciers aboard a Coast Guard cutter and meet with fishermen protesting a planned gold-and-copper mine on Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery. The fishing industry is the state’s largest private employer, worth about $6.7 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Obama will also hike through the Alaska wilderness with celebrity survivalist Bear Grylls for an episode of NBC’s “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.” The program will be broadcast later this year.

The administration is announcing a number of minor initiatives this week to assist the 49th state. The Department of the Interior is introducing a program to encourage cooperation among native tribes to manage salmon fisheries crucial to the Alaskan economy. The Obama administration will establish a leadership academy for native youths, and provide $1 million in additional funding for federal employees at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Oil Drilling

Obama is being met in Alaska by opponents from his political left and right. Republicans say they fear the president’s climate policies may hurt a state economy heavily dependent on the oil industry. Environmentalists meanwhile say the Obama administration has been too lenient toward oil companies seeking to drill in Alaskan waters.

More than half of the state’s budget and 90 percent of the government’s discretionary spending comes from oil revenue, which has rapidly declined with the price of crude. Prices had decreased by about 60 percent in the past year, before a rally last week. As a consequence, Alaska’s government faces an estimated $3.5 billion deficit this year.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, attended the State Department conference and warned the president before the visit not to overreach on climate initiatives that could hurt the state’s economy.

Obama has long supported expanding drilling off the state’s coastline, and last month his administration granted Royal Dutch Shell a final permit to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea for the first time in over two decades.

Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, planned a rally near the site of the State Department conference.

Brian Deese, a senior adviser to the president, said in an Aug. 28 conference call with reporters that new drilling projects are necessary as long as oil and gas remain large contributors to the nation’s energy supply. The president supports abandoning fossil fuels for clean energy production eventually, he said.

“That’s a transition that is not going to happen overnight,” Deese said.

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