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Obama’s historic visit to Alaska puts climate in forefront

In a bid to further his environmental legacy, President Obama is heading to Alaska on a three-day tour the White House is calling “a spotlight on what Alaskans in particular have come to know: Climate change is one of the biggest threats we face, it is being driven by human activity, and it’s disrupting Americans’ lives right now.” Obama hopes to make climate change the cornerstone of his final year and a half in his office as he becomes the first sitting American president to visit the Alaskan Arctic. The President along with Secretary John Kerry and foreign ministers will discuss the challenges of how to best manage the future of this region, and the people and natural resources that reside here.

Obama’s remarks to the GLACIER Conference, attended by the foreign ministers of the Arctic nations, ended up in unusually blunt language Monday, calling out “deniers” who would stand in the way of desperately needed change. Shrinking glaciers of the America’s only Arctic state served as the backdrop for Obama’s push for action on climate change in Anchorage as he warned the international community that “the climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it” and “we are not acting fast enough.”

“The Arctic is at the leading edge of climate change, a leading indicator of what the entire planet faces,” warned Obama. He said new research showed 75 gigatons of ice were disappearing from Alaskan glaciers annually – each gigaton the equivalent of a block stretching from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial and four times as high as the Washington Monument. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem,” he added. “Climate change is already disrupting our agriculture and ecosystems, our water and food supplies, our energy and infrastructure.”

His speech to the summit set the tone for the widely publicized tour of Alaska that will be 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. The trip comes at a delicate moment for the president. Barely two weeks ago, the US government gave Royal Dutch Shell the green light to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean off the northwest coast of Alaska – not exactly the kind of move you’d expect from someone who commits to combat the climate change crisis. Climate activists stridently opposed the government’s decision on the approval of Shell’s permit. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate has also voiced her opposition.

The President defended the Shell’s application as part of a balanced energy approach which he describes as the development of domestic resources of oil and natural gas until more sustainable, alternative fuel sources become the norm.

“I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling. I remember the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico all too well,” Obama said in his weekly address. “That’s precisely why my administration has worked to make sure that our oil exploration conducted under these leases is done at the highest standards possible.”

On Tuesday, Obama will tour one of the state’s shrinking glaciers near Seward, about 125 miles south of Anchorage. Wednesday takes him to Dillingham where he’ll converse with local fishermen and their families whose livelihoods are being affected. Then he’ll travel to the coastal village of Kotzebue, where Shell has some drilling equipment stationed, to view the effects of rising seas and melting permafrost. He’ll also film an episode of Running Wild With Bear Grylls – all part of a highly orchestrated White House campaign to highlight the real-world effects of climate change and how it has damaged the Alaska’s stunning landscape.

In addition, Mr. President plans to rename the country’s tallest mountain from Mount McKinley to Denali, a historic nod to the region’s native population, which has been embroiled in controversy for more than a century. Named McKinley in 1896 after President William McKinley, the 20,320-foot peak has long been known locally as Denali. The national park surrounding the mountain was named Denali in 1980, but the peak itself is still listed in official federal documents as McKinley. Past attempts to make the change were blocked by lawmakers from McKinley’s home state of Ohio. What the president failed to emphasize that Denali itself has lost a dramatic amount of its ice to climate change.

Obama sought to portray the U.S. as doing its part even as it develops energy resources it will need during the longer-term transition to cleaner, renewable fuels. Obama’s administration has increasingly used a regulatory approach to address climate change, setting the first national standards to cut carbon emissions from power plants. Last year, Mr. President reached a breakthrough climate change pact with China to cut carbon emissions drastically by 2030. Reaching climate agreement with its largest trading partner wasn’t a small feather in his cap. Later this year, Obama will return to the issue of global warming when he meets with Pope Francis in September and again at the climate conference in Paris in December.