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Obama’s trip to Alaska brings out mixed responses about his climate legacy

02 Sep

by Margaret Badore (@mbadore)

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President Obama talks about the need for climate action in the state where he recently green-lighted off-shore drilling.

It’s hard to dispute that the Obama administration has done a lot to move the U.S. in the right direction on climate change. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final rules to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, and recently proposed rules to cut methane emissions from energy production. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been working to strike deals with other nations to cut emission ahead of the international climate talks in Paris later this year, including major emitters like China,India and Brazil.

So, as President Obama visits Alaska this week, it’s no surprise that he’s speaking out against climate change. “We know that human activity is changing the climate,” he said in Anchorage yesterday. “We can have a legitimate debate about how we are going to address this problem; we cannot deny the science. We also know the devastating consequences if the current trend lines continue.” (You can watch the full speech here.)

President Obama in AlaskaWhite House/Video screen capture

But the timing and the location strike some as strange or even hypocritical, given that Obama gave Shell oil the go-ahead to begin exploratory drilling in Alaskan waters just two weeks ago. Climate activism leader Bill McKibben told Slate that it’s “odd” to “first hand Shell a shovel and then go for a visit.”

A number of studies have estimated that about three quarters of known fossil fuels should go unburned if we want to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius and avoid further wide-spread climate disaster. Continuing to explore for new sources of oil seems very much at odds with the goals of fighting global climate change.

The administration said that it has placed tight regulations on Shell’s operations, and has also pointed out that it has set aside new nature reserves where drilling is not permitted. And arguments have been made that regulating domestic fossil fuel production reduces dirtier production overseas while meeting the energy demands of the immediate future. Yet many observers are calling for much bigger measures and more urgent action.

“On climate change, President Obama has been good, but not good enough,” said Richard Steiner, marine biologist and former University of Alaska fisheries extension agent. “The U.S. commitment to reduce carbon emissions by about 30 percent in the next 15 years is about half of what is urgently needed. It is like we are on a sinking boat, taking on two gallons of water a minute, and we are bailing one gallon a minute. We are still sinking.”

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