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Obama to highlight climate change on first-ever presidential visit to the Alaskan Arctic

President Obama makes a historic trip to Alaska this week, during which he’ll attend a meeting of the Arctic Council to stress the importance for action on climate change and meet with Native Alaskans whose lives have been affected by rising tides and temperatures. William Brangham talks to NPR contributor Elizabeth Arnold of NPR.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    But, first, President Obama made history today simply by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to set foot in the Alaskan Arctic.

    In anticipation of the trip, the trip the White House made another kind of history, announcing that Mount McKinley, the nation's highest peak, will be returned to its native name, Denali.

    William Brangham has more on the president's trip.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    On his three-day trip, the president will attend a meeting of what's known as the Arctic Council. And to stress the need for action on climate change, the president will visit some of Alaska's glaciers and then meet with native Alaskans whose lives have been affected by rising tides and temperatures.

    For more on the president's trip, I'm joined by journalist Elizabeth Arnold, who's in Anchorage.

    Elizabeth Arnold, three days is a long trip for a president to make. We know the president is going to be stressing the need to act on climate change, but why now and why Alaska?

  • ELIZABETH ARNOLD, NPR Contributor:

    Well, it started out as just a drop-in by Secretary of State John Kerry, and then it turned into this three-day visit by the president, when the White House saw this as a great opportunity for the president to build a sense of urgency for addressing climate change and build momentum for the upcoming meeting in Paris, where world leaders will try to negotiate an agreement to cut carbon emissions.

    The idea, obviously, is to put a face on the impact of a warming climate. And more than a few officials have described this as a show-and-tell. Alaska is the place where coastal villages are eroding into the sea and have to be relocated, glaciers are receding at a rapid rate, fisheries — everything is happening here at a much faster pace, almost like a time lapse.

    And the U.S. has just assumed chairmanship of what is called the Arctic Council — eight nations are involved for — the next two years. And most Americans don't even know we're an Arctic nation. And we have been a member of the council for 13 years before we ever sent a representative to the meeting.

    But now, because of the warming climate, everyone is suddenly interested in the Arctic for a variety of reasons. And the U.S. is now in a leadership position for the next two years.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    I mean, Alaska is obviously a very interesting place to talk about climate change. As you describe, there's huge impacts in the state because of climate change, yet it's also a state that is hugely dependent upon the fossil fuels that drive climate change.

  • ELIZABETH ARNOLD:

    Absolutely.

    The impacts of climate change are devastating for some and an opportunity for others. I mean, here in Alaska, it's extreme weather, fall storms, permafrost that is no longer permanent, walrus falling out onshore in the hundreds of thousands. And this has really impacted indigenous people here, Alaska natives who live on the coast and depend on hunting and fishing so subsist.

    On the other hand, less ice means open water. And if you're in the business of extracting oil, it means it's a good thing. It means a safer season, better transit for shipping. So, it's kind of a blessing and a curse, depending on your perspective.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It seems like there's another contradiction as well, that the president wants to talk about reducing fossil fuel usage, and yet he's been criticized quite severely for just granting Shell a permit to dig up more fossil fuels out of Alaska.

    I mean, is he giving a bit of a mixed message there?

  • ELIZABETH ARNOLD:

    They don't see it this way. They see it — that the rational is — and they reiterate it repeatedly — that we need new sources of oil, domestic oil, for a gradual transition from dependence on fossil fuels.

    But it's risky, William. I was just out on an icebreaker several weeks in the High Arctic, and it was 20-foot, 30-foot seas. There has been a storm out in the Chukchi this past week that forced Shell to suspend their drilling. And the coast has been pounded by a storm surge.

    Secretary Kerry last night described it as a test. He said he's always been leery of offshore drilling, but, in this case, the leases were sold. The president was convinced it could be done safely. And, basically, they're saying Shell now has to prove — Shell now has to prove itself, that it's a test.

    Meanwhile, other nations, though, such as Russia, are looking to exploit new oil and gas opportunities off the Arctic as well. So, we're not the only ones.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Yes. As you mentioned, Russia has obviously been taking staking its own claim there, as these seas and shipping lanes open up. Will that be part of the conversation at the Arctic Council meeting this week as well?

  • ELIZABETH ARNOLD:

    It will.

    Russia has sent a delegation, not the highest members of the delegation. They are by far the most aggressive nation. They have put on recently unannounced military exercises, which involves thousands of vessels and troops in the Arctic.

    They also just resubmitted their claim to almost 500,000 square miles of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole. Now, Denmark, Norway, and Canada, also members of the council, are also submitting claims to the U.S.

    And Russia says it's also going to man search-and-rescue stations all along the Northern Sea Route and rebuild military bases all across the Arctic. And I asked Secretary Kerry about this posture last night, and it was interesting. He said the U.S. should be cautious and vigilant about what the Russians are and are not doing, which is really an important point.

    A lot of this is theatrics. I was up and down the Chukchi coast just recently on this icebreaker, and some of the very places where these stations are going to be located, William, are old abandoned buildings with polar bears denning inside. So, some of this is talk.

    Russia is in the midst of a severe economic recession. Oil prices are low. And as much as we all in the media kind of want to portray this as this race to control the Arctic, and the U.S. is lagging behind, it's not really what is happening. Russia has been cooperative in the Arctic Council thus far, which operates by consensus. And any kind of territorial claims also have to be settled by consensus and all of the Arctic nations at the end of day.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    All right. Elizabeth Arnold from Anchorage, thank you so much.

  • ELIZABETH ARNOLD:

    Thank you, William.

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