President Barack Obama arrived in Alaska on Monday for a three-day tour aimed at showing how the state’s melting permafrost and eroding coastlines are a preview of bigger disasters to come unless the world does more to slow 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 at a U.N. summit in Paris in December that could cement his legacy on the issue.
“None of the nations represented here are moving fast enough,” Obama told a meeting of foreign ministers from countries with Arctic interests.
“This year, in Paris, must be the year that the world finally reaches an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got while we still can,” Obama said.
The White House has said Obama will announce new policies this week to help Arctic communities adapt to climate change.
But the main purpose of his trip is to draw attention to the threats facing the state to convince Americans to reduce fossil fuel use and boost 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.
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 snapped a photo of Denali from Air Force One and posted it on Instagram shortly before meeting with a group of native leaders on the ground.
“They described for me villages that are slipping into the sea,” Obama said. “It’s urgent for them today, but that is the future for all of us if we don’t take care.”
He spent part of his seven-hour flight to Alaska talking with Governor Bill Walker, who said he thanked Obama for a recent decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea.
Environmental groups have howled about that move, saying it contradicts Obama’s message on climate. “Shell no!” a small group of protesters shouted outside the Arctic summit, waving skulls made to look like the company’s logo.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Obama plans to head out of Anchorage to hike the receding Exit Glacier in Seward, visit the salmon fishing center of Dillingham and then fly 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.