President Barack Obama got a taste of the U.S. Arctic on Wednesday, dropping in to two remote fly-in native villages in a journey the White House hopes will show how climate change is affecting Americans.
Crossing the Arctic Circle, Air Force One flew over Kivalina, pop. 400, a whaling village on a barrier island debating whether to move as melting sea ice raises sea levels.
Obama said Kivalina is a harbinger of hardships other parts of the country could face if global warming goes unchecked.
“I’ve been trying to make the rest of the country more aware of the changing climate – but you’re already living it,” Obama told a crowd jammed into a school gym.
It was the culmination of a three-day adventure in which Obama hiked to a glacier and toured majestic fjords by boat, delighting residents in a vast and sparsely populated state often left off presidential itineraries.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen before: the president, in Kotzebue, my hometown!” said Betty Kingeak, 26, who is a cashier and delivery driver at Little Louie’s restaurant.
Kingeak said she worries climate change could mean her children will not be able to camp, hunt and fish like she does.
Obama, the first sitting president to cross the Arctic Circle, is pushing to marshal support for an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.
He also wants to convince Congress to back at least one new heavy ice breaker for the U.S. Coast Guard, a national security priority underscored by a report on Wednesday that Chinese navy ships were in the Bering Sea near Alaska.
Earlier on Wednesday, Obama visited Dillingham, a town on Bristol Bay, home to one of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fisheries, where two women gave him a crash course in catching salmon in traditional nets.
“I’ve got to get some gloves so I can handle my fish,” Obama said, donning an orange pair and hoisting a still-flopping silver salmon.
The fish promptly relieved itself on his shoes.
“Uh-oh. What happened there?” he said, laughing as the women explained the fish was spawning.
He tried his hand at Yup’ik native dancing with grade school students before taking his motorcade down the main drag, passing a fishing boat with the hulking head of a recently killed moose.
At the N + N Market, where a large bag of Doritos cost $9.39, Obama talked about the high costs of food in places where almost everything has to be shipped in.
The community was plastered with signs like “Mines and fish don’t co-exist” protesting against the Pebble Mine copper and gold project proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd.
The Environmental Protection Agency has placed restrictions on the proposed mine, which the company is fighting in court.
“Our view is that if the president is interested in the issue he should try to hear from all perspectives about it,
including those closest to Pebble who would like the jobs Pebble may provide,” said Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble Limited Partnership.
Obama did not address the mine directly, but noted he had taken steps this year to shut off Bristol Bay from oil and gas exploration to protect the fishing industry.
“There are other threats to this environment that we’ve always got to be alert to,” Obama said.
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Additional reporting by Steve Quinn in Juneau, Alaska; Editing by Louise Ireland, Toni Reinhold)
Watch footage of Obama Yup’ik dancing, as posted by ABC News, below.