ANCHORAGE, Alaska — President Barack Obama turned Tuesday to a dramatic symptom of climate change — a melting Alaska glacier — to highlight the dangers of global warming.
As he mounts his most aggressive campaign yet on climate change, Obama planned to trek up Alaska’s famed Exit Glacier with photographers in tow, a powerful visual designed to make an impact in ways his speeches and ominous warnings have not. The president also was to board a U.S. Coast Guard vessel to tour Kenai Fjords National Park, where swaths of an immense ice field are melting at alarming rates.
Obama is counting on Alaska’s exquisite but deteriorating landscape to add urgency to his message on climate change, the focus of his three-day tour of the state. He opened the trip Monday night by painting a doomsday scenario for the world if steps aren’t taken to cut emissions: entire nations submerged underwater, cities abandoned and refugees fleeing in droves as conflict breaks out across the globe.
“We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair,” Obama said in a speech. Alluding to the threat of rising seas, he castigated leaders who deny climate change as “increasingly alone — on their own shrinking island.”
Some 700 square miles in the Kenai Mountains are blanketed by glacier, remnants of the Ice Age, when roughly a third of the Earth was covered with sheets of ice. One of nearly 40 glaciers springing out from Harding Icefield, Exit Glacier has been receding by 43 feet a year, according to the National Park Service. It has retreated about 1.25 miles over the last two centuries.
Obama’s carefully choreographed trip aims to make an impression with audiences that don’t follow the news through traditional means. To that end, Obama also was taping an episode of the NBC reality TV show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” and putting his survival skills to the test.
The itinerary also includes a journey to the Alaska Arctic, the first by a sitting president, amid concerns that the U.S. has ceded influence to Russia in the strategic waters. The U.S. currently has two working icebreakers, compared to Russia’s 40. The White House said Tuesday it would ask Congress to speed up construction of new icebreakers, although it offered few details about the timeline or costs.
Although the trip hasn’t entailed new policy prescriptions or federal efforts to slow global warming, Obama has said the U.S. is doing its part by pledging to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases by up to 28 percent over the next decade. Obama set that target as the U.S. commitment to a global climate treaty nations hope to finalize in December. He has urged fellow leaders to make similarly ambitious pledges.
Despite these efforts, the U.S. isn’t a shining example when it comes to greenhouse gases. Each American emits more than twice as much carbon dioxide as a Chinese and 10 times that of someone from India, Energy Department figures show. China, the U.S. and India are the top three polluters.
The U.S. has cut its carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels by about 8 percent since 2000, and around 7 percent since Obama took office. But some industrialized, European nations have made even steeper cuts, including Britain, Spain and Denmark.
Obama’s trip to Alaska’s majestic mountains and stirring coastlines also brings fresh attention to deep divisions in the U.S. over balancing the nation’s energy and environmental needs.
Heavily dependent on energy revenue, plunging oil prices are hitting Alaska hard. The blow is compounded by the high cost of energy in the state. Alaska leaders of all political stripes have implored Obama to open up more areas to drilling to alleviate a $3.5 billion budget deficit that has triggered steep cuts to state services that are critical for poor and rural Alaskans.
“For a population as small as we are, it’s pretty significant,” said Alaska Gov. Bill Walker.
At the same time, Obama has struggled to explain how his dire warnings square with steps he’s taken to expand energy production, even at the risk of higher emissions. Environmental groups are criticizing the administration’s recent move to allow expanded drilling by Royal Dutch Shell off Alaska’s northwest coast.
Obama has stressed that some fossil fuel development is a necessity as the U.S. undergoes a longer-term shift to clean, renewable fuels that don’t make the planet warmer. Environmental groups say the Shell decision is a stain on his climate legacy.
Associated Press White House reporter Josh Lederman wrote this report.