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02-09-2015 COP20 in the Media

6 Reasons Why Obama’s Trip to the Arctic Matters No Matter Where You Live

Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters

Photo: Jason Redmond/Reuters


Changing climate and oil drilling in the far north are disrupting life far south of the Arctic Circle.

When Barack Obama visits the coastal native village of Kotzebue, Alaska—population 3,200—on Wednesday, he will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit American territory above the Arctic Circle.

Advance word is that the president will use the visit to highlight the urgency of action on climate change. But some conservation groups have decried the message as hypocritical, because it comes just weeks after the Department of the Interior gave Shell Oil the final permit it needed to start drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s northwestern coast.

The juxtaposition puts the climate contradictions of the Obama administration in sharp relief. This White House has taken action on fossil fuel use that may result in deep cuts to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—from restrictions on coal-fired power plants and improved automotive fuel efficiency standards to billions of dollars spent on clean energy technologies.

The administration, however, has also promoted an “all of the above” energy policy that includes opening the Arctic Ocean and parts of the Atlantic seaboard to oil and gas extraction.

Whether the president’s climate focus on this trip is impressive or ironic, he couldn’t have picked a better place in the United States to deliver the message, given that climate disruption in Alaska is well under way and already having a global impact.

Here are six reasons why what happens in the Arctic matters to billions of people worldwide.

1. Oil Drilling

Burning oil and gas extracted from beneath the Arctic Ocean may lead to climate catastrophe. Scientists say that if we have a chance of averting the worst impacts of global warming, most of the world’s remaining untapped fossil fuel must remain underground, including all of what’s buried below the Arctic seafloor.

2. Wildfires

More wildfires in the Arctic and sub-Arctic mean more soot in the air and more heat-trapping carbon in the atmosphere rather than stored in trees or permafrost.

3. Frigid Winters

Less Arctic sea ice in summer is causing extreme winter weather at lower latitudes because it is forcing the jet stream into a different path.

4. Flooding

Melting glaciers are raising the sea level along coastlines worldwide, amplifying the destructiveness of storm surge and leading to more flooding.

5. The Atlantic Current

Melting Arctic ice is altering the Atlantic Ocean current that keeps the Northeastern U.S. and Northern Europe warm.

6. Whales

Endangered whales swim, give birth, and feed near Arctic oil drilling sites. The disruptions caused by drilling fleets, as well as underwater seismic testing for petroleum or gas deposits, could harm bowhead, beluga, and other whales, as well as Pacific walruses, ice seals, and Arctic fish.

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