In Alaska, Theatrics of Obama’s Climate Agenda Don’t Measure Up to Promises—or Reality


Remember change you can believe in? In 2007, the climate crisis was at the top of Candidate Obama’s agenda along with closing Guantanamo Bay. But contrary to his soaring rhetoric, it seems there hasn’t been much of a difference – for energy companies, at least – between the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

In fact, the closer we get to the end of the Obama presidency the more obvious it becomes that a kind of duality has ruled American policy circles for the last seven years – a duality that has favored short term interests over the very fate of the planet. From fracking to the Keystone XL pipeline, his administration has been all in for Big Energy since day one, while almost always saying the opposite. During Obama’s time in office, the U.S. has become the world’s largest energy producer, helping push down prices in an already low-demand environment and roiling international markets in the process.

This hypocrisy became almost unbearable during the president’s recent trip to one of the places most visibly affected by climate change: Alaska. The state has felt global warming in some severe ways – most notably, experiencing recently some of its worst summer wildfires in recorded history. According to, the fires are even burning through permafrost – frozen soil a couple of feet under the ground surface, which covers 70% of the state.

The permafrost itself is already receding with grave consequences for the unique Arctic environment. An alarming page on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website explains that, while most Alaskans live in non-permafrost areas, the communities that do exist there – and the infrastructure such as roads and highways that are built on top of the permafrost, not to mention the forests and ecosystems that rely on it – are all at risk of literally collapsing due to rising temperatures. The region is one of the first to feel the day-to-day changes and effects of global warming, as temperatures have increased over 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 6 degrees in the winter over the past 50 years – a rate at least twice the U.S. national average.

In coastal areas, rising sea levels are already putting Alaskan people’s homes under water. Most of the communities dealing with the issue are indigenous; many of them live a subsistence existence, relying on the region’s natural bounty of fish and wildlife. Several communities close to the water are expected to be lost to rising waters by the end of the decade. Climate change has also been disastrous for polar bear, walrus and other mammals that rely on the disappearing sea ice to hunt for food.

Grandstanding in front of shrinking glaciers and filming an appearance on a reality TV show may be what passes for an “environmental stand” these days. But Democrats like Obama talk a good game while caving in to the same big fossil fuel interests as Republicans. It leaves citizens believing that progress is being made on environmental issues – a win-win for everyone involved, except every living thing on the planet.

Much was written in the media about permits the Obama administration gave to Royal Dutch Shell, which expedited its exploratory drilling in the Gulf of Alaska a couple of weeks before Obama’s trip. The new drilling, already delayed by weather, is supposed to take place 70 miles off the Alaskan coast in the Chukchi Sea, “a treacherous area characterized by extreme storms, likely to cause massive oil spills.”

Environmentalists were rightly incensed by the timing of the permits. But an even more destructive force, at least in the short term, had already been unleashed in the state a month earlier: the U.S. Navy. Missed among the breathless reports about five Chinese military ships being spotted in international waters off the Alaskan coast during Obama’s visit, a recent naval exercise called “Northern Edge” occurred amidst salmon season in the Gulf of Alaska.

Salmon are a vital resource in Alaska – not only for professional fishermen in towns surrounding the gulf, including Kodiak and Cordova (which saw a number of protests over the naval exercise), but as the major food source for the Eyak people, an indigenous culture whose traditional lifestyle relies on salmon. In a letter to Alaska Gov. Byron Mallot, the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC) explained that “the Gulf exercises would see massive increases from any conducted before, including a 6,500 percent increase in sonobuoys, a 200 percent increase in bombs and missiles, and the potential to leave more than 352,000 lbs. of expended and hazardous materials in the Gulf of Alaska.”

Live sonar, which has not been used in the Gulf before, is known to disrupt the migration patterns of whales and other marine mammals, but less is known about its effect on fish populations. As Emily Stolarcyk of the EPC said in an interview with Alaska Dispatch News about the introduction of live sonar and its possible consequences: “It’s just a giant unknown. The Navy says, ‘Sonar doesn’t harm fish.’ Well, your own EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) says you don’t know.”

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