As President Obama visits Arctic Alaska, the first president to do so, he is speaking about the many impacts that climate change is already causing there, from rising seas to melting permafrost collapsing homes. Because the arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet, climate change is a bigger issue for Alaska, for residents of towns close to the water, for tribes dependent on traditional fishing for their livelihood, for rapidly melting glaciers.
As part of his trip, Obama gave an opening address to the GLACIER Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. He stated that the U.S. recognizes its role in creating the problem and responsibility to take part in solving it. He noted that no nation is moving fast enough, and condemned leaders who gamble by taking no action on the dire future due to climate change are "not fit to lead."
Obama faces severe criticism during the trip from environmental groups who accuse him of hypocrisy, since at the same time he is calling for action to address climate change, his administration has just given final permission to Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic. During his trip, native groups and allies rallied to demand no drilling in the Arctic.
Shell's plans have been confronted by many activists, the kayaktivists in Seattle to bridge danglers in Portland, both trying to stop Shell ships and rigs from being able to leave port to go to the Arctic. Groups are mounting petition campaigns and public relations efforts to organize opposition to Shell's plans (sign one petition here.)
The record of the Obama administration on environmental issues, while mixed, stands in contrast to the previous, George W. Bush administration. Obama's positive steps include major support for developing renewable energy in the stimulus bill, efforts by the EPA to regulate new and existing power plant carbon emissions, increased mileage standards for cars and trucks, the agreement with China on projected reductions in emissions, and many more. Negative actions include support for major increases in fracking, in offshore oil drilling, and refusing to kill the Keystone XL pipeline (which has also not been approved).
The administration faces opposition from the right, in Congress and elsewhere, for the plan of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions as pollution harmful to human health. Republicans in Congress continue efforts to defund the EPA, to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, to undercut any climate agreements, to deny the basic science of climate change, and more.
Obama's current tour is part of the run-up to UN-sponsored climate negotiations to take place in December in Paris. The agreement signed between the US and China on carbon reductions has increased expectations that this conference will have more concrete results than many previous UN conferences on climate. In addition to these government-to-government negotiations, there is a growing movement to divest from fossil fuel corporations, which just had a big victory in California.
A growing factor on the world stage is the efforts of Pope Francis and other important religious leaders to add a moral dimension to how the issue is framed, and to bring their not inconsiderable political capital to bear on the negotiations.
Each particular battle is but one part of the longer struggle to transform our energy economy, our economy as a whole, how things are produced, packaged, and distributed. The direction of these struggles is ultimately to challenge the system, but in the meantime, we need all the allies, temporary or partial though they are, to make changes right now. These current battles lay the basis for future, more basic victories. Obama has moved U.S. policy into the column of those tackling climate change, though in an uneven and partial way. But winning smaller victories now is key to winning more later.