President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska on Monday for a three-day tour aimed at spotlighting how its melting permafrost and eroding coastlines show the United States is already being hurt by climate change.
With 16 months left in office, Obama is trying to build support for tough new rules on carbon emissions from power plants ahead of a hoped-for international climate deal later this year that could cement his legacy on the issue.
The White House has said Obama will announce new policies to help communities adapt to climate change and deploy renewable energy. But the main purpose of his trip is to use the media attention – amplified by an aggressive social media campaign – to convince Americans of the need to reduce fossil fuel use and increase renewable energy production.
“It’s a really important punctuation mark on what he’s saying is a top priority for him,” said Sharon Burke, a former Pentagon official who worked on energy issues for Obama and is now a senior adviser at the New America think tank.
The hype for the tour began on Sunday with an announcement that Obama would rename North America’s tallest mountain as Denali, restoring the traditional Alaska native name to what maps and tourists currently call Mount McKinley.
Obama posted a photo of Denali on Instagram shortly before landing in Anchorage for a meeting with a group of native leaders. He was later set to address an international conference on the Arctic.
He spent part of the seven-hour flight talking with Alaska Governor Bill Walker, who told reporters he thanked Obama for his administration’s recent decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea.
Environmental groups have howled about that move and hope Obama will announce new reforms or restrictions for resource extraction while he is on the trip.
During the past year, Obama took steps to seal off parts of the oil-rich state from new drilling. But Walker told reporters that the state depends on oil and gas for 90 percent of its revenues, and the downturn in the price of oil has meant drastic budget cuts.
On Tuesday, Obama plans to head out of Anchorage to hike the receding Exit Glacier in Seward. He will fly on Wednesday to the salmon fishing center of Dillingham and then north of the Arctic Circle to the small town of Kotzebue.
“People are just beside themselves. They’re probably not going to believe it until he’s actually here,” said John Baker, a Kotzebue resident famous for being the first Alaskan Inupiaq to win the Iditarod sled dog race in 2011