Obama's Arctic Trip Seen as Pivotal for Climate Action

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By Andrea Vittorio

Aug. 25 — President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to the Arctic area, which is warming faster than any other place on Earth, could be a turning point for climate action, a former State Department official said Aug. 25.

“The image of the president of the United States” standing by melting glaciers in Alaska “is one that may have an enormous amount of power going forward,” said Rafe Pomerance, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and development during the Clinton administration.

Obama's multi-day tour of the Alaskan Arctic, the first for a sitting president, is scheduled to include stops in Seward, Dillingham and other communities feeling climate impacts firsthand. The president will also speak at an Aug. 31 State Department meeting of scientists, policy makers and businesses from around the world focused on how rising temperatures are reshaping the region.

“As a result of that visit, it’s possible that there’ll be a change in the perception of the climate issue,” Pomerance, now a member of the National Research Council's Polar Research Board, said in an online briefing organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It will no longer be seen as something where action can be postponed or approached with a minimalist agenda. Rather, the message of the unraveling Arctic is urgency.”

Arctic Changes Impact Globe 

Rapid changes in the Arctic could have implications for the world's coastlines, the fish sticks in your freezer and maybe even our weather, according to work by the National Research Council. 

That is why the State Department hopes one of the main themes that will emerge from its Arctic meeting is an understanding that what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic.

“It's not just a question of here are some of the significant changes that are occurring as a result of climate change but also here's why those things have particularly significant effects...in terms of their impacts elsewhere in the world,” Karen Florini, deputy special envoy for climate change at the State Department, said during the webinar.

Carbon Trapped in Arctic 

Vast stores of greenhouse gases trapped in the Arctic's permanently frozen ground also have the potential to add to global climate change as the ground thaws and they are released.

“There's a lot of carbon trapped in the permafrost, and we don't have a very good idea of how quickly that will be released into the atmosphere,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist at UCS.

Ekwurzel said there is also a lot of carbon trapped in the Arctic in the form of oil and natural gas. “We do have more control over extracting that,” she said.

The Obama administration has been criticized by environmental advocates for granting Royal Dutch Shell permission to drill for oil in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, which they say goes against the president's commitment to tackling climate change.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com