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Opinion

In Alaska, Obama warns against climate change but OKs drilling

In Alaska, Obama faces contradictions in his own climate change policies

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

President Obama is doing God’s work in Alaska by highlighting the ominous shifts in the Arctic environment being caused by climate change, but his administration has made a deal with the devil by approving Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

In Anchorage on Monday, before heading off for a photo opportunistic hike to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Mountains, Obama spoke at an international conference on climate change and said the kind of thing an American president should be saying.

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” Obama said. “We’re not acting fast enough. I have come here today, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and it’s second-largest emitter, to say that the United States recognizes our role in creating the problem, and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.”

This is a million miles from the foolish things being said by the lineup of Republican presidential candidates who pretend that if they only confess that they are “not scientists,” they are absolved from addressing the biggest threat facing the planet. Some of them, at least, know better, but they cower in fear of the anti-scientific yahoos who dominate the GOP base, as well as the oil and coal companies that fund their campaigns.

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John Holdren, the White House director of science and technology, delivered a bleak warning at the Anchorage gathering. He said failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change will result in a 7-degree rise in global temperatures that will be devastating and deadly. Glaciers and the masses of ice at the poles will continue to melt, sea levels will rise, inundating island nations, coastlines and entire cities. The warmer, more acidic oceans and seas will become barren. Vast agricultural areas will be turned to deserts, and starving, displaced hordes of refugees will swamp safer regions, such as Europe and, perhaps, the United States.

It is unconscionable that anyone who is running for president should ignore this impending global crisis. Yet, it is also disappointingly hypocritical for our current president to speak so eloquently and boldly about the problem while giving the OK for arctic drilling. Not only could spills from those new drilling rigs in the Chukchi Sea wreak environmental havoc in the fragile Arctic region, but every drop of the oil brought to the surface, refined and sold as fuel for cars and industry, will add to the carbon emissions that are warming the atmosphere and acidifying the seas.

Obama can certainly argue that the situation is complicated by law, politics, economics and even international relations. There are regulations to be followed that make it difficult to deny drilling permits to oil companies. There is a strong political impetus in favor of American energy independence. There is Alaska’s reliance on oil production to sustain the state economy. And there is the fact that on the far side of the Arctic Ocean, the Russians are going full bore to claim and exploit the resources that lie beneath the water’s surface. The great irony is that those resources would be inaccessible had global warming not opened up the Arctic by shrinking the polar ice.

Whatever the difficulties Obama may face in maintaining a consistent policy, he is not making environmentalists happy. Speaking at fossil fuels divestment conference in Paris this week, leading environmental activist Bill McKibben slammed Obama for trying to have it both ways on climate change. “It is very difficult for Barack Obama or anybody else to say, ‘Look, we take this completely seriously, this is the greatest problem the world’s ever faced, but it’s OK to go ahead and start drilling a whole new oil field up in the Arctic.’” McKibben said. “Those two things are at odds.”

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McKibben is right and, yet, Obama has the best record of any U.S. president, thus far, on this issue. It only shows how much more courage we will need to see from our leaders in confronting the power of the fossil fuels industry before any truly effective action is taken to save future generations from catastrophe.


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