ANCHORAGE, Alaska, September 1, 2015 (ENS) – In his first visit to the Arctic as President, Obama saw evidence of global warming firsthand and made an urgent plea for world leaders to waste no time in joining forces to combat climate change.
Speaking at the the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, convened by the U.S. State Department, Obama took the stage at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. In a Monday evening speech streamed live on the White House website he said repeatedly, “We’re not moving fast enough” to stop the advancing impact of climate change.
Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it is disrupting Americans’ lives right now, Obama said.
“I’ve 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 this problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it. And I believe we can solve it. That’s the good news. Even if we cannot reverse the damage that we’ve already caused, we have the means – the scientific imagination and technological innovation – to avoid irreparable harm.”
“We know this because last year, for the first time in our history, the global economy grew and global carbon emissions stayed flat,” Obama said. “So we’re making progress; we’re just not making it fast enough.”
In the audience were foreign ministers and officials from 19 countries and the European Union who took part in the conference. The world’s top six greenhouse gas emitters were all there: China, the USA, Russia, India, Japan and Germany.
Arctic nations were there: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – and so were other key states: Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, and the United Kingdom. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry led the conference.
“Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought,” President Obama warned. “The science is stark. It is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present.”
“In fact, the Arctic is the leading edge of climate change – our leading indicator of what the entire planet faces,” he said.
Obama took aim at climate deniers who oppose taking action to limit the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the rising planetary temperature.
“We know that human activity is changing the climate. That is beyond dispute,” Obama declared. “Everything else is politics if people are denying the facts of climate change. We can have a legitimate debate about how we are going to address this problem; we cannot deny the science.”
He spoke of “devastating consequences” unless humans can change their behavior. And even if they do change, said Obama, “We’re not going to be able to stop tomorrow.”
But if emissions continue the way they are, Obama warned, “there’s not going to be a nation on this Earth that’s not impacted negatively. People will suffer. Economies will suffer. Entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems. More drought; more floods; rising sea levels; greater migration; more refugees; more scarcity; more conflict.”
Obama presented the choice. “That’s one path we can take. The other path is to embrace the human ingenuity that can do something about it. This is within our power. This is a solvable problem if we start now.”
“And we’re starting to see that enough consensus is being built internationally and within each of our own body politics that we may have the political will – finally – to get moving,” he said.
“So the time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is past. The time to plead ignorance is surely past. Those who want to ignore the science, they are increasingly alone. They’re on their own shrinking island,” Obama said to applause.
He received a standing ovation.
Obama recognizes that Alaskans are already living with the effects of climate change. On a White House blog post from Alaska, he wrote the state is already experiencing, “More frequent and extensive wildfires. Bigger storm surges as sea ice melts faster. Some of the swiftest shoreline erosion in the world -in some places, more than three feet a year. Alaska’s glaciers are melting faster, too -threatening coastal communities, tourism and adding to rising seas.”
“If we do nothing,” Obama wrote, “Alaskan temperatures are projected to rise between six and twelve degrees by the end of the century – changing all sorts of industries forever. This is all real. This is happening to our fellow Americans right now.”
The salmon populations that native Alaskans have relied on for generations are already being hurt by the warming climate, and the President said he is acting to give Alaskan tribes more control over salmon management.
“My administration is taking new action to make sure that Alaska Natives have direct input into the management of Chinook salmon stocks, something that has been of great concern here,” the President said after a long, private roundtable discussion with native Alaskan leaders.
Obama made it clear that he is listening and will take action to help native Alaskans, who belong to 11 distinct cultures, each with its own language.
“One of the biggest things I heard during this discussion was the need for us to work more intensively and more collaboratively with communities, particularly in rural areas, that are burdened by crippling energy costs, that are obviously continually concerned about hunting and fishing rights and their ability to sustain their way of life in the face of profound climate change that’s taking place – taking place, in fact, faster – twice as fast here in Alaska as it is in the Lower 48,” he said.
“In addition to initiatives around renewable energy and how we can be more creative in helping local communities deal with high energy costs and bringing them down, housing construction that’s more energy efficient that can save people money,” promised Obama, “we’re also going to be paying a lot of attention to how we can work together and tap into the wisdom and knowledge of tribal communities in managing and conserving land in the face of what is a profound global challenge.”
In another gesture of respect for native Alaskans, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell Monday announced that the highest mountain in the United States and North America, formerly known as Mount McKinley, will be officially given the traditional Koyukon Athabascan name of Denali, or The Great One.
The 20,237-foot mountain was named Mount McKinley in 1917 after U.S. President William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. He served from March 4, 1897, until his assassination in September 1901, six months into his second term.
Recognizing the long history of strong support from Alaska state, tribal and congressional leaders, and in resolution of an official request for a name change pending for 40 years, President Obama endorsed Jewell’s decision to issue a Secretarial Order that officially changes the mountain’s name.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker, an Independent, applauded the name change.
“For decades, Alaskans have been urging the federal government to recognize Denali by its proper name. I am pleased that the White House and the Department of Interior have taken the necessary steps to finally make this important change,” said Governor Walker, who traveled with the President from Washington, DC to Alaska on Air Force One. “Alaska’s place names should reflect and respect the rich cultural history of our state, and officially recognizing the name Denali does just that.”
The six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve, where the mountain is located, was established in 1917 and annually hosts more than 500,000 visitors.
The President will be in Alaska through Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to talking to Alaskans about how we can work together to make America the global leader on climate change around the globe,” he said.
Environmentalists support the President’s position on climate change.
Margaret Williams, managing director for the World Wildlife Fund’s Arctic programs said Monday, “Alaska’s climate challenges are the nation’s and the world’s challenges. That’s why we needed President Obama to come to Alaska and shine a light on the problem, and on what needs to be done here and globally. The President drove home the point that the U.S. is an Arctic nation with a huge stake in the region’s future.”