Jeff Goodell's piece on President Obama's trip to Alaska and his climate change legacy heading into his final years as President is an excellent read.
Obama's trip to Alaska marked the beginning of what may be the last big push of his presidency — to build momentum for a meaningful deal at the international climate talks in Paris later this year. "The president is entirely focused on this goal," one of his aides told me in Alaska. For Obama, who has secured his legacy on his two top priorities, health care and the economy, as well as on important issues like gay marriage and immigration, a breakthrough in Paris would be a sweet final victory before his presidency drowns in the noise of the 2016 election. "If you think about who has been in the forefront of pushing global climate action forward, nobody is in Obama's league," says John Podesta, a former special adviser to Obama who is now chairing Hil-lary Clinton's presidential campaign. (One recent visitor to the Oval Office recalled Obama saying, "I'm dragging the world behind me to Paris.")
Policywise, the president didn't have much to offer in Alaska. He restored the original Alaska Native name to the highest mountain in North America (Denali), accelerated the construction of a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, doled out a few million bucks to help Alaska Native villages move to higher ground — largely symbolic gestures that didn't do much to help Alaskans deal with the fact that their state is melting like a popsicle on a summer sidewalk. In the end, the trip was mostly a calculated and well-crafted presidential publicity stunt. And it raised the question: If the American people see the president of the United States standing atop a melting glacier and telling them the world is in trouble, will they care?
"Part of the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to start making it a little more visceral and to highlight for people that this is not a distant problem that we can keep putting off," the president told me. "This is something that we have to tackle right now."
Obama could not have picked a better place to make his point than Alaska. Climatewise, it is the dark heart of the fossil-fuel beast. On one hand, temperatures in the state are rising twice as fast as the national average, and glaciers are retreating so quickly that even the pilot of my Delta flight into Anchorage told passengers to "look out the window at the glaciers on the left side of the aircraft — they won't be there for long!" The very week of Obama's visit, 35,000 walruses huddled on the beach in northern Alaska because the sea ice they used as resting spots while hunting had melted away; in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists were tracking the effects of a zone of anomalously warm water that stretches down to Baja California and which has been named, appropriately enough, "the blob." On the other hand, the state is almost entirely dependent on revenues from fossil-fuel production, which, thanks to the low price of oil and exhausted oil and gas wells on the North Slope, are in free fall — the state is grappling with a $3.7 billion budget shortage this year. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had flown from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage with the president at the beginning of his trip; according to one of the president's aides, Walker asked the president to open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling to boost state revenues. "Alaska is a banana republic," says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental group in Alaska. "The state has to pump oil or die."
Truly winning the battle for climate change in the US, in order for the country to get past the obfuscation and the lies from the corporate right, absolutely has to start in Alaska. President Obama knows it.
Whether or not the rest of the 49 states care, the answer will remain no. That's not Obama's fault, and he's trying to fix it. His reasons for allowing arctic drilling for gas, that we can't completely prevent exploration, is not exactly the best reason, but it's something that is a start.