President Obama in Alaska

On road to Paris climate change talks, Obama detours through Alaska

With the effects of climate change growing ever more apparent in the Arctic and throughout the world, there are high hopes that parties attending a December meeting in Paris will emerge with a legally binding global treaty to reduce emissions. And the road to such an agreement will cut right through downtown Anchorage.

Alaska's reputation in the public consciousness as a poster child for climate change, combined with U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council, have helped give rise to the GLACIER conference. High-ranking foreign delegations from Italy to India will meet at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Alaska's largest city.

The United States appears to be employing Alaska, its doorstep to the polar region, as a setting to work toward the widespread international consensus needed to forge the ambitious emissions treaty. To do so, the Obama administration is bringing its heaviest hitters, including the president himself, Secretary of State John Kerry and nearly every major policymaker on climate change in the federal government.

Meanwhile, across the world in Bonn, Germany, lower-level State Department diplomats are toiling away in routine negotiations leading up to the climate meeting, an event held annually in different cities under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Bonn meetings are characterized by incremental progress on arcane matters that are key to progress during climate talks, but do not grab headlines. In contrast, GLACIER, like Alaska, is big and bold. (And so is its title. GLACIER stands for Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience.)

By inviting prominent players to Alaska, the U.S. is "offering yet another international forum for countries to come together and make a statement to their citizens at home, and to the world, that they are committed to moving forward in Paris," said Victoria Herrmann, U.S. director at The Arctic Institute in Washington, D.C.

Another practical reason for Alaska as the conference setting is that the Arctic, unlike any other part of the United States, is inherently international. And that, Herrmann said, is important for bringing the Russian Federation to the table at a time of soured relations with the U.S. and the European Union over Russia's actions in Ukraine. Sergey I. Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the U.S., is scheduled to attend.


"International access is really important," Herrmann said. "It's particularly important that Russia and the West are at the same table and show that they can still come together and make a multilateral statement."

But Russia isn't the only consideration. Countries such as China and Japan that, like the U.S., are big greenhouse gas emitters, are key to successful climate talks. Those same countries are intensely interested in the Arctic's rich natural resources, including oil and natural gas, and the region's increasingly accessible shipping routes.

At the Arctic Council, non-Arctic nations are shut out of the closed-door meetings between the eight Arctic countries -- Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark -- and indigenous groups with permanent participant status. But GLACIER, although hosted by the country holding the chairmanship, is not an official Arctic Council meeting, allowing the U.S. the freedom to shape its structure in ways that play to the Obama administration's diplomatic goals on both climate and the Arctic.

"The Arctic Council protocol doesn't apply here," said Jim Stotts, president of the Alaska chapter of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a permanent participant at the Arctic Council. "They can set any rules they want."

As GLACIER's unilateral host, the U.S. has opted to allow China and other non-Arctic nations the chance to participate in closed-door meetings, for national governments only, discussing not just climate change but Arctic-specific issues the Obama administration deems important: ocean stewardship, environmental protection and support to local communities and the region's role in influencing the global climate. One of the closed sessions, focusing on resilience and adaptation to climate change, is not explicitly linked to the Arctic.

"There is a sort of restlessness in countries like Korea, China and Japan in getting a greater role, economically and scientifically in the Arctic," said John Higginbotham, a senior fellow at both Carleton University and the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Ontario, Canada. "A number of these observer states have not been fully happy with how they've been treated in the Arctic Council," he said. " Those players will be grateful to be invited (to GLACIER)."

U.S. asserting itself in the Arctic

Whether the linkage of the Arctic with the Paris climate change talks leads to any progress is still an open question, but Paris is not the only goal.

"The U.S. is chairman of the Arctic Council and so that country gets to drive the agenda," said Lynn Wagner, who analyzes multilateral environmental negotiations as a senior manager with the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Washington, D.C. "They can get people talking about an issue in the way they want it to be addressed."

But GLACIER provides a way for the U.S. to assert itself as an Arctic nation in a high-profile setting that, while still international, gives the Obama administration even more control over who's attending and what's discussed than it could claim in an Arctic Council meeting, where even allies sometimes disagree.

Although administration officials dismiss the notion, other Arctic watchers said the U.S. council agenda stands in stark contrast with that of Canada's, which passed the chair to the U.S. in April.

One major difference, they said, was Canada's focus on its domestic agenda in the Arctic, a stance that led to some grumbling among other countries in the region, according to Herrmann.

"There is a certain amount of disdain between the U.S. and Canada, particularly in Arctic affairs," said Herrmann. "What the US has identified as its priorities is in a way a direct response to Canada, which was very domestically and resource-development focused, whereas the U.S. is more internationally and science and diplomacy focused."

The stated priorities for the U.S. in the Arctic are to improve the economies and living conditions of Arctic communities, broadening ocean safety and stewardship and addressing the impacts of climate change.

"Canada's chairmanship was more about responsible economic development in the Arctic, whereas, if you look at the GLACIER agenda, the words 'economic development' do not occur," said Higginbotham.

Just four months into its chairmanship, the U.S. has already created the impression that it's more open to forging cooperation in the Arctic on an international level.

"Since the U.S. has taken chairmanship of the Arctic Council, they're using it not as a way to influence only regional deals, but as a way to influence global deals," said Stotts. "That's different from past chairs who focused on the effects of the outside on it."

Treatment of Russia is also a source of disagreement. Russia's shaky relations with the U.S. and Europe are well-publicized, but it was the Canadians who took the strongest stance on the Ukraine issue within the council during its chairmanship.


"Our minister said they were going to raise the Ukraine issue there, so Russia sent its environment minister instead (of someone higher ranking)," said Higginbotham. "Canada was somewhat isolated on this issue because the Scandinavians have deeper more real economic connections with the Russians and although the U.S. has to be tough on them in Ukraine, it has to work with them in space and on Iran and terrorism."

"The U.S. is used to a differentiated approach of reasonably good relations in one area and disagreements in others," Higginbotham said.

Fran Ulmer, chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, said observations that the U.S. is purposely trying to distinguish its chairmanship from Canada's are overstatements.

"A lot of people give lip service to that point of view," she said. "Personally, I don't think it's a deviation or a contrast."

Bigger role for the Arctic

Foreign policy requires some level of domestic support. And the rich symbolism Alaska offers -- melting glaciers, distressed polar bears, rural villages sliding into the sea -- is a way to awaken the public to the direst effects of climate change while also making more Americans aware that the U.S. is an Arctic nation, there is an Arctic Council and the U.S. is its chair.

The White House began shaping the public message on climate change with a video it released in advance of the conference, featuring the president himself.

"What's happening in Alaska isn't just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don't take action. It's our wake-up call," Obama says as the camera pans across a calving glacier and sweeping land- and seascapes. "The alarm bells are ringing. And as long as I'm president, America will lead the world to meet this threat before it's too late."

Although most Americans are aware of climate change, their awareness of their country's role in the Arctic lags behind that of other nations, hindering efforts by the U.S. to become a bigger player in the region.


"At present, the U.S. is almost unique in the Arctic Council in that part of its national identity isn't based on being a northern country," said Herrmann. "Instead, Alaska was seen as something regrettable and was never really part of national myth-making. We don't see it as part of the American identity."

The lack of public interest in the Arctic is part of what is holding back ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would allow the U.S. to make legal claims to territory in the region, and allocate meaningful levels of federal funding for projects such as building expensive new ports and icebreakers, Herrmann and others said.

"There will be increased commercial activity in the Arctic, but you can't prioritize the activities that need to go along with that if you don't have a national imperative from the public that reaches up to Congress," said Katrina McLaughlin, who has watched the GLACIER conference develop as a research assistant at Resources for the Future, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. "That's why you need a big public outreach campaign during the U.S. chairmanship."

President Obama's legacy is also a consideration, as his record on the Arctic is mixed. His administration angered environmental groups by allowing oil company Shell's highly controversial offshore drilling program to take place, but pro-development groups also criticize him for taking a firm stand against resource extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The themes of the GLACIER conference, combined with an itinerary that would make him the first sitting U.S. president to visit the American Arctic, indicate that Obama prefers his climate change agenda to take pride of place in the historical narrative of his presidency. In the eyes of many Arctic and climate watchers, helping to make Paris a success would put the president in a better position to count action on climate change as one of his key accomplishments.

"I think he wants to go into the Paris climate negotiations looking like his administration is doing more," Wagner said. "(Opposition from congressional Republicans means) the U.S. will have to keep saying 'no' as much as it has before, but the GLACIER conference might help people accept that the Obama administration is struggling to address climate change in as many fora and aspects as it can."

Jeannette Lee Falsey

Jeannette Lee Falsey is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. She left the ADN in 2017.