In the first address of his historic three-day visit to Alaska, President Barack Obama urged participants in a State Department conference to take in Alaska's "God-given majesty" as they contemplate the difficult steps to slow or stop the onslaught of climate change.
"I hope you have the chance to visit a glacier, or just look out your airplane window as you depart," he told a crowd of foreign dignitaries and diplomats at the GLACIER conference at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. "Remind yourself that there will come a time that your grandkids and mine — if I'm lucky enough to have some — they'll want to see this."
"Ask yourself," Obama added, "are you doing everything you can to protect it?"
Obama didn't announce any specific policy initiatives in the speech. But he used references to Alaska's melting glaciers and burning forests to punctuate a two-part argument: The United States and other nations aren't moving fast enough to confront the problem of climate change, Obama said. But countries can still slow or reduce their emissions, he added, without cutting off opportunities for their citizens.
"Last year, for the first time in our history, the global economy grew and global carbon emissions stayed flat," he said. "We're proving that there doesn't have to be a conflict between a sound environment and strong economic growth."
The remarks by Obama were delivered less than four hours after his big double-decker Boeing 747, Air Force One, touched down at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at the end of a seven-hour flight from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. His talk came amid the lead-up to the latest round of global climate talks in Paris in December.
In his first day in Alaska, Obama didn't have the big discussion on resource development and federal lands that some local leaders had sought.
But he held a long private roundtable with Alaska Native leaders from most of the state's regions.
Gov. Bill Walker, who took the flight back to Alaska with Obama and his retinue, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, a Native leader from Yakutat, were both present at the meeting. Walker said Obama turned the meeting into a "listening session.' He said the president went around the table to hear from each of the tribal representatives.
He and Mallott said the conversation included discussion of climate change and erosion around villages — the focus of Obama's visit — but also the high costs of health care and transportation in rural Alaska.
The president also mentioned an initiative to give Alaska Natives greater say in the management of chinook salmon in the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, Mallott said.
Outside the meeting halls, Alaskans for the most part seemed to relish the visit by "POTUS" — the President of the United States — despite the big disruptions to downtown streets and sidewalks and a motorcade that took him to dinner at the Campbell Lake home of Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff.
The only big protest was launched by environmental organizations that agreed with Obama's message on climate change but objected to his approval of drilling in Arctic waters by Shell. Someone donned a polar bear suit, but the warm, sunny weather appeared to induce the costumed protester to lounge in the Park Strip like it was a backyard barbecue. The conservative organization, Americans for Prosperity, abandoned its demonstration permit, citing security restrictions.
One person was arrested. A police spokeswoman said Daniel Palmer, 29, kept trying to dart into the secure perimeter around the Dena'ina Center and was arrested at 12:20 p.m. after several warnings. His motivation was unknown.
Before the president's speech Monday, the Department of State released a joint statement from the United States and more than 15 other countries affirming their goal of an "ambitious outcome" at the Paris climate talks — though it provided few specifics beyond a mention of the importance of a plan to reduce releases of soot and methane, the main component of natural gas and a pollutant emitted in some methods of petroleum production. (Obama did note in his speech that he's pledged the U.S. will reduce emissions by at least 26 percent from 2005 levels 10 years from now.)
Kerry introduced Obama by saying the president understands "all of what is at stake" in the climate debate — though in the process Kerry mispronounced the name of Alaska's Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, calling him "mallet." Mallott said he didn't hear the slip, though it was recorded and available on a White House feed.
Obama also made a Cheechako error during his roundtable with Alaska Natives, pronouncing Kotzebue, his destination Wednesday, as "coat-say-boo."
But in the excitement of the visit, no one seemed to mind. Obama made the state, its people and its environment a focus of his 25-minute speech, noting that the Arctic is experiencing sharper temperature rises than the rest of the world.
Melting permafrost is destabilizing the earth "on which 100,000 Alaskans live," Obama said. The state's wildfire season is getting longer. Melting sea ice leaves villages more vulnerable to waves and storms.
"The point is that climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now," he said. "Already, it's changing the way Alaskans live."
In spite of global efforts to reduce emissions, Obama continued, climate change will continue to worsen unless nations can agree on steeper cuts — including the United States.
"If those trend lines continue the way they are, there's not going to be a nation on this earth that's not impacted negatively," he said. "People will suffer. Economies will suffer."
In a shot at climate change deniers, Obama said, "Any so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke is not fit to lead."
Obama's climate-centric message didn't impress the Republican National Committee, which issued a statement from spokesman Fred Brown shortly after the speech saying the president should "focus on creating jobs, not hurting middle class families with higher energy costs and lower wages."
Greenpeace, meanwhile, said Obama's own environmental policies undermined his aggressive speech on climate change Monday.
"It's time for the president to stop talking about urgency and stop approving extreme fossil fuel projects like Shell's Arctic drilling plans," the Greenpeace statement quoted Mary Nicol, the group's senior Arctic campaigner, as saying. "The approval of that very project undermines every other bold move the president has made on climate change."
Alaska Rep. Bob Herron, who represents the Southwest Alaska hub community of Bethel, said he was going to reserve judgment on Obama's trip until he'd heard more.
Obama, Herron said, has two more days in Alaska, and said in his speech that he'd be making more announcements about how he'd address challenges faced by the state's residents.
"In fairness, I want to see 100 percent of the picture," said Herron, a Democrat who caucuses with the House's Republican-led majority.
Obama's message on climate, Herron said, was "determined, strong, challenging — not only ourselves, but he challenged a lot of countries around the world about a worldwide issue that's important to him."
Republican U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, the first Alaskan to greet Obama when he climbed down from Air Force One, said later that he appreciated Obama's acknowledgment early in the speech that the U.S. is an "Arctic nation." But Sullivan was disappointed the president didn't use his prime-time platform Monday to address issues facing the Arctic beyond climate change, like its rich supply of natural resources — including natural gas — its strategic location for the military, and the region's epidemic of suicides.
"I still would welcome the president to talk about broader issues," Sullivan said. "But the bully pulpit moment has passed."
Obama and his staff are staying at the Hotel Captain Cook. The motorcade left the hotel around 7 p.m. and headed toward Minnesota Drive.
The president made quite a stir on the freeway, where motorists traveling the opposite way, toward downtown, stopped their cars on the driving lanes to take pictures of the caravan. Others stood gawking in the grassy median.
The motorcade left the highway at Dimond Boulevard and drove to a private dinner hosted by Rogoff, the Alaska Dispatch News publisher.
Rogoff, who has been acquainted with the president for several years, described it as a private dinner featuring an Alaska-grown menu. She did not disclose who attended the dinner or how many guests were invited.
"It was a chance for the president to have a conversation with a diverse group of Alaskans," Rogoff said. Because it was a private dinner, no guest list will be distributed, she said. She described it as a "non-political event."
On Tuesday, the presidential party heads toward Seward, where Obama plans to visit Exit Glacier. He'll also take a boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. On Wednesday, he heads for Dillingham and Kotzebue, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to travel above the Arctic Circle in Alaska.
Devin Kelly contributed to this report.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing