Baked Alaska, Anyone? The Race to Save (or Cook) the Planet

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Holdren GLACIER

Dr. John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, addresses attendees at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, AK on 8/31/15.

Climate Science & Policy Watch has all eyes on Alaska this week, as President Obama becomes the first sitting U.S. president to visit the region. As a rare treat, he will venture outside of his hotel and conference room to witness climate impacts first hand and converse with “real people, in real places” who are being impacted negatively by a disrupted climate system. We tuned in to yesterday’s live stream of the State Department’s GLACIER conference in Anchorage and commented in real-time in social media. We’re concerned about the blatant contradiction between the President’s statements regarding the present consequences of human-induced climate change and threats to the people of Alaska, and his recent approval of drilling by Shell Oil off of the Alaskan coast. White House Science Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, made a rare public appearance – presenting the room full of high-level delegates representing over a dozen powerful nations with a basic tutorial on climate change, complete with a slide presentation. Today we are analyzing the remarks President Obama made last night, and will be watching closely for continued inconsistencies as he tours Seward, hikes to Exit Glacier and boats to Kenai Fjords National Park while continuing to promote this glaring, and dangerous, contradiction. It’s show time for global warming, the curtain is up and the actors are all delivering their lines. How it all plays out is anybody’s guess… stay tuned.

In addition to Holdren, yesterday’s lineup included state and local leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. Special Representative to the Arctic (a new position created by Obama in 2014) Adm. Robert Papp, Jr., and a very well done video presentation depicting the gruesome nature of the Arctic climate threat, happening right now.

Amidst the theatrics – including the Presidential decision to finally restore the good name of Mount Denali – the ball to keep a steady eye on is the escalating conflict between the oil extraction industry’s stronghold on Alaska’s economy, almost entirely dependent on oil revenue, and the rolling climate crisis in the region. This week, Alaska became the stage on which a global drama is taking place in real-time, and, as in any good play, the protagonists (those who heed scientists’ warnings and thus plead to keep crude oil in the ground and in seabeds, so as not to invoke irreversible climate disaster) and antagonists (those who would “drill-baby-drill,” no matter the cost) are engaged in a fight to the bitter death. Do not let the pleasantries and polite discourse in the UN-esque gathering in Anchorage fool you, however: the stakes are high, and the international high-rollers are armed for battle.

The key questions are, which side is the United States on, and how will we be able to tell? The messages coming from the President are mixed, at best; duplicitous, at worst.

Again, President Obama is being charged with hypocrisy for green-lighting an offshore oil drilling permit to Royal Dutch Shell in order to plant a massive rig in the Chukchi Sea off the northern coast of Alaska (an act he could have avoided if he really wanted to), all while publicly lamenting the dangerous impacts of climate disruption in the Arctic and our collective need to prevent them from worsening.

With a set of international climate change negotiations  in Paris looming on the horizon, slated for December, what kind of message is the U.S. sending to the rest of the world?

Leading up to the Alaska visit, the entire Alaskan congressional delegation (all three of them) issued a barrage of admonitions and emotional pleas for the President not to go too far overboard setting national policy affecting Alaska in letters, public statements, press interviews, emails, Facebook posts, and urgent-sounding tweets. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) published a formal letter to the president listing eleven different renewable and other sustainable energy projects in Alaska, urging him not to “use climate change as an excuse to deprive Alaskans of our best economic prospects” and reminding him that these admirable projects “were made possible by State revenues from oil production.” Pleading for more federal-state partnerships, she lamented that many Alaskans spend more than half of their income just “to stay warm and keep the lights on.”

Earlier this year, upon learning of a presidential visit to her state, Sen. Murkowski was more honest and specific in voicing her fears:

“I have never been a good alarmist, but it is becoming harder and harder to conclude that this administration’s long-term plan is anything other than to starve our Trans-Alaska Pipeline System of new oil … It sure looks like their goal is to shut down our pipeline once and for all — to see it decommissioned and dismantled.”

Alaskans are worried that there will not be enough oil pumped out of the ground or seabed to feed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and that they might be forced to shut it down. Since 85-90 percent of the state’s income derives from oil revenue, the fear is that the Alaskan economy will tank even further than it already has. But instead of proposing policy fixes to the strong link between crude oil extraction and dollars — decoupling a link that will eventually sink the state, literally — political leaders in Alaska resort to mere rhetoric.

Sen. Daniel Sullivan (R-AK), a rumored Koch Brother favorite newly sworn in this past January, took his fight to Twitter:

cspwtwitter2The tweets aptly capture the essence of the modern-day argument: If he attempts to further impede oil extraction (by, for example, using his powers to declare more national monuments), President Obama will be hurting the Alaskan people. Oil is money in Alaska: in 1976 the state passed a constitutional amendment establishing an oil revenue-derived permanent fund for its residents. Many poverty-stricken Alaskans depend on their annual lump sum payment for basic survival. Rep. Don Young (R-AK, representative at large since 1973) has urged the President to “empower our people and state” but constrain federal impositions, and to beef up the aging fleet of icebreakers — large ships equipped to chew up large ice chunks in their path. Up until his arrival, Obama refused to meet with the Alaskan delegation, a fact each of them took note of and lamented publicly.

To top if off, Alaska Governor Bill Walker accompanied the President on the 8-hour flight on Air Force One from Washington, DC to Anchorage, presumably bending his ear as much as possible.

“My goal is to spend as much time as possible with the President so I can clearly present to him the benefits our great state provides the nation,” Governor Walker said. “I look forward to discussing with President Obama opportunities for the state and federal government to work together to improve Alaska’s economic situation. I also want to thank President Obama for his leadership in permitting Shell’s  exploratory drilling activities. It’s an honor to accompany a sitting President to our great state.”

Big Oil is also doing its share of public fretting. For example, oil giant ExxonMobil has teamed up with a coalition of labor and energy business groups to issue a lengthy plea in which it asks not to be given the cold shoulder, and likewise hopes that the President “will recognize the benefits of resource development to the state’s economy, not to mention the significant contributions the 49th state makes to American energy security, manufacturing, and national security.”

Yesterday’s collective admonitions did indeed throw cold water on oil drilling enthusiasts’ escapades. Last night, addressing the international delegates at the GLACIER event, President Obama reeled off a list of potentially devastating climate change impacts in the Arctic, proclaiming:

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now.”

Yes, Mr. President, this is not news: the vast majority of scientists have been warning of this for decades and we have an abundance of on-the-ground data to back it up. The newsworthiness is in the fact that, in stark contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama dared not only to “speak truth to power,” but to also utter the words with passion, conviction, and with apparent resolve to take meaningful action commensurate with the threat. (Translated, this means drastic cuts in fossil fuel use worldwide and potentially much less oil drilling in the Arctic.) His remarks are causing a stir; The New York Times characterized the address as bordering on “apocalyptic.” Obama used the phrase “we’re not acting fast enough” four times during his speech and took responsibility head-on for the U.S.’s role in causing the problem in the first place — thus being at least morally obligated to help solve the climate problem:

“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.”

His statements are believable; on the climate issue, Obama has built up some legitimacy. After a long famine on the climate change policy front in this administration, we’re finally seeing an overdue but welcome feast of proactive climate policy actions as the White House issues a flurry of statements and speeches, initiatives, and executive orders all geared toward using cleaner energy and dirty energy more efficiently — and the executive branch moves forward with game-changing regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The President is right, and he is right to use Alaska as a backdrop. Nowhere is climate change more visible, more potentially deadly, and more crucial to overall global weather patterns than at the Earth’s poles — the Arctic and Antarctica — which act as giant thermostats for the entire planet. The U.S. political and economic stake in the Arctic, the gargantuan state of Alaska, is already suffering the harsh impacts a warmer more volatile climate system imposes on a region accustomed to being frozen solid most of the year. More than 30 villages in Alaska are either now or in imminent danger of falling into the ocean, sinking into melted permafrost, at risk of extreme flooding, or all three. Melting permafrost is wreaking havoc with centuries old patterns of survival. There is a long litany of impacts: trillions of gallons of glacial ice melted, annual temperatures up 3.5° F, winter temperatures up 5.5° F, the ground temperature in Barrow up 7° F — meaning melting permafrost, soft ground and a host of ensuing problems. Alaska wildfires were averaging about 250,000 acres of burned land over the first ten years of statehood (1960s) but have decimated 1.2 million acres a year on average over the last ten years. Coastal sea ice is absent a full month more than it used to be in the 1970s. Alaska is melting.

If we can take him at his word, the President of the United States is dead serious about addressing the threat head on, with all of the emissions reductions and the called-for dramatic shift away from carbon-intensive energy sources currently fueling so many economies.

Or is he?

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
– Yogi Berra

All that melting ice has whetted the appetite of nations across the world, which want to take advantage of the increasing navigability of waters always frozen, until global warming changed that. We are going to need some new equipment to get around up there! Eerily reminiscent of the cold war era when keeping up with Russia was paramount, the U.S. is worried that Vladimir Putin can boast of 40 well-built icebreakers with a dozen more in production, while the United States is essentially down to one or two that actually work — with ten or so other rusty buckets not up to the task.  And so, almost immediately after issuing a call-to-climate-action, President Obama handed out what Rep. Young could have interpreted as a personal gift: a pledge to put more heavy duty icebreakers in the Arctic. Though, since there is no money in the budget now to pay for even one of these beasts carrying a one billion dollar price tag, Obama did what many of us do: put it off until the future (in this case, 2020 instead of the planned 2022), and spend someone else’s money (the decision will depend on a future Congress). At the moment, there is only $4 million in the budget — “it doesn’t even buy you a porthole” quipped Sen. Murkowski — and if the U.S. is going to exert its might as a regional peacekeeper (referee) to all of the nations chomping at the bit to take advantage of newly navigable seas, then we’d better put our money where our mouth is. The Arctic is being touted as the new frontier, and the gold-diggers are suiting up.

We are at a crossroads; a critical juncture in planetary history where we must, as a global society, determine just how and at what pace we will take meaningful action commensurate with the climate disruption threat. Moreover, nowhere is this decision point made more poignant than at the poles, in the Arctic and Antarctica. It’s time to avert cascading disasters: face them squarely and invest in solutions or suffer them. Of late, no one can be faulted for experiencing a sense of confusion, even cognitive dissonance, when, in one breath, President Obama delivers a passionate plea to act more quickly on the climate change threat, and in the next, issues a call-to-action to beat the Russians (or at least keep up with them) to take advantage of melted ice (otherwise known as “shipping lanes”) to extract as much as we’re able of the natural resources that this delicate, uniquely precious Arctic region has to offer. Couched as a “balanced approach” to the Alaskan environment and economy, proponents of oil (and mineral) extraction insist we can continue these practices while being kind to marine animals.

Deeds speak louder than words. What the White House does in the waning days of the Obama Presidency — what tangible actions are taken — will be the test and more determinative of this president’s climate change legacy. Already, it can be argued, Obama has done more to address the problem than the last few presidents combined. However, federal support for Alaska is lacking, especially for helping Alaskans deal with an environment that is literally falling out from under them.

CSPW was given this exclusive quote from Professor David Titley, retired Rear Admiral and founding director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State:

“Forget rhetoric and roadmaps…Now must come the hard work of establishing and funding real programs that will make a real difference and meet the challenges that tomorrow’s Arctic region will present, Titley said, in reaction to the President’s Alaska trip.

In other words, put up or shut up. We could not agree more.

 

Senior CSPW Contributor Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy.

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