President Obama is in Alaska this week for a three-day trip intended to highlight the northern region's vulnerability to climate change, and to point out the way these changes will alter the geopolitical, social, and economic future of the remote territory. One obvious way this is happening is that it compelled a sitting president to travel to the Alaskan Arctic for the first time.
On Monday, Obama hit up Anchorage, Alaska to talk about how climate change is reshaping the Arctic. He did not paint a pretty picture.
In his Monday remarks, Obama said the Arctic is the "leading edge" of climate change and that Arctic temperatures are "rising about twice as fast as the global average." He pointed out that thawing permafrost is destabilizing the land on which many Alaskans live. He said warmer, more acidic oceans and rivers threaten the livelihoods of many Alaskans. He said Alaska has some of the worst coastal erosion in the world. He noted that more than 300 wildfires were burning at once in the state this summer and that the fire season has extended by over a month since 1950.
He did not mince words about the consequences of all this.
If we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of the permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle—warming leading to more warming—that we do not want to be a part of.
By the end of the speech, Obama pivoted to a more positive angle, saying "if we unite our highest aspirations…we can solve this problem," and "this is not simply a danger to be avoided; this is an opportunity to be seized."
The timing of Obama's trip is meant to build momentum for climate action, specifically at the United Nations climate conference at the end of the year in Paris, where leaders hope to hash out a new global accord. The timing of his trip also comes just a few weeks after his administration gave Royal Dutch Shell the final permit it required to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska's northwest coast—the first time the oil company has gotten this far in more than two decades.
Environmental groups were incensed by this decision, having made bold efforts to derail Shell's plans all summer, including kayaking in front of Shell's drilling equipment in Seattle's port and hanging from bridges in Portland, Oregon. They argue that not only can the planet ill-afford more greenhouse gas emissions, but local wildlife—including polar bears, walruses, whales, and seals—could be devastated by any type of spill associated with the extraction.
“We think it’s deeply hypocritical,” said Travis Nichols, spokesman for Greenpeace. “For a president who’s done so much for the climate, to see him do something that could undo that is a real tragedy.”
Obama has tried to navigate a very narrow path when it comes to Arctic oil drilling, having both set areas aside as off-limits for drilling while also allowing Shell's permit to move forward. Obama has said that since it's impossible to stop drilling in the region entirely, the best path forward is to set the highest standards possible.
Having spent Monday giving the lay of the land (and also renaming the tallest mountain in the United States), Obama is turning his focus to something less monumental, but still quite impressive: icebreakers. As the Arctic melts and sea ice diminishes, the Arctic is becoming more appealing for a number of intrepid enterprises. Aside from fossil fuel and mineral extraction, countries and multinational conglomerates are also eager to pave the way for more direct shipping lanes, lay new fiber optic cables, elevate tourism industries, and find new sources of fish, amongst other things.
Icebreakers help get this done.
The United States is notably lagging in the race to take advantage of these opportunities, with the New York Times pointing out that the Coast Guard "has the equivalent of just two 'fully functional' heavy icebreakers at its disposal, down from seven during World War II. Russia, by contrast, has 41 of the vessels, with plans for 11 more."
Heavy icebreakers can cut through 21 feet of ice and medium icebreakers can take on eight feet of ice.
As Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska recently put it “the highways of the Arctic are icebreakers. Right now the Russians have superhighways and we have dirt roads with potholes."
The Arctic Ocean’s perennial sea ice has been shrinking by 13% per decade since 1978, with 2015 set to be another near all-time low. As the region loses sea ice and increases in appeal, icebreakers offer a helpful barometer when it comes gauging what's really at stake, including issues of national sovereignty and security. Russian president Vladimir Putin has said he wants the Bering Strait to become the next Suez Canal, and that ships passing through the area may be forced to pay transit fees to Russia. In recent months, Russia has been deploying a newly-created Arctic brigade to stage large military exercises in the region.
Obama has a few ideas in mind when it comes to closing this icebreaker gap. First of all he wants to speed up the replacement of an icebreaker from 2022 to 2020. He also wants to begin building new icebreakers, provided Congress will set aside the $1 billion needed for each one. According to Politico, it would take the U.S. shipbuilding industry at least a decade to build a brand new one. Obama is also announcing a new mapping initiative for the region in an effort to chart fast-changing Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. This will also involve monitoring the impacts of climate change on the region, including sea level rise and sea ice thickness.
The entire day will not be devoted to icebreakers, however, and Obama will for the most part be in the coastal town of Seward, named after President Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska in 1867—from Russia. He will hike a glacier and tour Kenai Fjords National Park in an effort to both bear witness to the impacts of climate change and bring attention to them.