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Obama in Alaska: Climate-change deniers 'are on their own shrinking island'

Obama in Alaska: Climate-change deniers 'are on their own shrinking island'
President Obama, accompanied by Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, steps off Air Force One after arriving at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

President Obama started out persuasive Monday, patiently ticking off evidence of climate change during the first major speech of his three-day Alaska tour, but he ended up blunt, calling out "deniers" who would stand in the way of desperately needed change.

"The time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is past," he told delegates to an international conference on climate change in the Arctic. "The time to plead ignorance is surely past. Those who want to ignore the science, they are increasingly alone, they are on their own shrinking island."

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He used the backdrop of America's only Arctic state to emphasize the need for this country and others to move, and move fast, to reduce carbon emissions, to pursue cleaner energy sources and to stop relying on "unstable parts of the world" for oil.

"If we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between 6 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," he said during the final session of the State Department-sponsored event.

Obama hopes to make climate change the cornerstone of his final year and a half in office. His Alaska excursion is the kickoff to a major push to change the way the United States and other nations operate, to convince doubters that the phenomenon is real and that it can be addressed without deep economic disruption.

On Tuesday, he will tour shrinking glaciers near Seward, about 125 miles south of Anchorage. Wednesday takes him to Dillingham and discussions with local fishermen and their families. Then he will venture north of the Arctic Circle to the town of Kotzebue, which is fighting coastal erosion caused by a climate that he described in his Anchorage speech as "changing faster than our efforts to address it."

Obama's remarks to the GLACIER conference,  attended by the foreign ministers of Arctic nations, were threaded with equal parts hope and dire warnings: Yes, it's a terrible mess. No, it is not irreparable -- with swift action.

"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 this problem and embraces our responsibility to help solve it," he said. "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," he continued. "We know this because last year, for the first time in our history, the global economy grew, and global carbon emissions stayed flat. So we're making progress. We're just not making it fast enough."

For all his powerful words and the standing ovation Obama received inside Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center at the GLACIER conference -- Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience -- the backdrop for his Alaska visit is tense.

As senior advisor Brian Deese told reporters before the trip, "the president has been pretty clear about his long-term vision for our nation's energy sector. He believes that America needs to lead and the world needs to lead in transitioning to an energy system based on carbon-0 renewable energy."

Still, environmentalists are wary of the man who just allowed Royal Dutch Shell to begin limited offshore oil drilling in the Chukchi Sea. An online petition by the group Credo Action sends the angry message: "Climate leaders don't drill the Arctic."

Early response to the speech was mixed. Margaret Williams, managing director for Arctic programs at the World Wildlife Fund, supported his trip to Alaska, which she said shines a light on climate change's serious threat. But she hopes what Obama sees will motivate him too, she said.

"Building resilient communities based on clean energy and jobs, protecting our wildlife and landscapes, and securing the culture and prosperity of Arctic communities are the building blocks of the Arctic's future," Williams said in a written statement. "As President Obama continues to push for meaningful climate action, it's critical he make these fundamentals a priority for his administration."

Greenpeace called on the president to "show courage and leadership," to stop Shell and to put a moratorium on future offshore drilling in the Arctic.

"President Obama emphasized two things during his speech in Alaska: the urgency of climate change and the possibility of solving it," said Mary Nicol, Greenpeace senior Arctic campaigner. "But it's time for the president to stop talking about urgency, and stop approving extreme fossil fuel projects like Shell's Arctic drilling plans. In fact, the approval of that very project undermines every other bold move the president has made on climate change."

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A coalition of groups including Greenpeace and Alaska Rising Tide rallied Monday blocks from the convention center where Obama spoke. The groups are demanding an end to offshore Arctic drilling and a rapid transition to renewable energy sources.

Protesters in polar bear costumes lolled on a long grassy park as others waved signs proclaiming, "People for the Ethical Treatment of Alaska" and "Our Future Must Be Renewable." Animal welfare organizations have launched an ad campaign "to ensure that an increasingly ice-free Arctic will not become a thoroughfare for trade in commercial whale products."

Then there are those who argue that Obama hasn't done enough to allow for the extraction of this cash-strapped state's abundant natural resources, including oil, natural gas and minerals key to manufacturing.

Gov. Bill Walker, who flew in with Obama on Air Force One, is among that group.

In a news conference last week about the president's visit, Walker told reporters that "one of the major messages to the president is the fact that we have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except it's three-quarters empty. And so I'll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline, more access we need to have to our resources."

Talking to reporters on the plane trip west, Walker said he thanked the president for allowing Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea and said he is confident the oil giant will proceed safely. He wants to see "revenue sharing from the offshore – we don't get any money at all from it."

And he said his state is "excited to have a president come up and it's actually a destination, it's not just a low-on-fuel stop."

Earlier Monday, Obama noted that his administration had heeded Alaskans' pleas to change the name of North America's tallest peak from Mt. McKinley to its original name, Mt. Denali.

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By the time Air Force One landed at Alaska's Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the National Park Service had already begun printing new maps of Denali National Park, wiping all traces of the 25th president from the cartographic record.

"It's not an arbitrary change," Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, referring to the dethroning of former President William McKinley, a native of Ohio. "In fact, this is an effort to align the policies of the federal government with what Alaskan natives have referred to that way for thousands of years."

In a nod to opponents, Earnest said the Interior Department "will work with leaders in Ohio ... to find an appropriate way to acknowledge President McKinley's contribution to our country."

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