On Monday morning (Aug. 31), President Barack Obama kicked off a 3-day conference in Alaska by delivering a strong and at times ominous speech about the dangers of climate change.
“The time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is past,” the president said, adding that if the global community doesn’t take bold steps to combat climate change right now, we will, “condemn our children to a world they will no longer have the capacity to repair.”
Obama warned that unless the world takes aggressive and decisive action to combat climate change, “entire nations will find themselves under severe, severe problems: More drought. More floods. Rising sea levels. Greater migration. More refugees. More scarcity. More conflict.”
“Any leader willing to take a gamble on a future like that, any leader who refuses to take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke, is not fit to lead… It’s not enough to just have conferences. It’s not enough to just talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk.”
While his rhetoric is certainly powerful, many environmentalists are criticizing Obama for failing to “walk the walk” himself. Just over a month ago, Obama gave his final approval to Shell Oil, allowing the company to resume drilling operations in the Alaskan Arctic despite the fact that Shell’s last excursion into the Arctic was pretty much a disaster from day one.
Besides the risk of an oil spill — which could be devastating to the Arctic ecosystem and the indigenous people who rely upon it — environmentalists also point out that increased Arctic drilling will likely speed up the melting of Arctic sea ice. Arctic drilling could also directly contribute to global warming — Al-Jazeera reports:
A recent study from the environmental group Clean Air Task Force found that drilling operations would likely emit considerable quantities of at least two major contributors to global warming — the greenhouse gas methane and harmful particulate matter black carbon. Oil drilling has also been linked to ocean acidification, a process that is already underway in the Arctic Ocean, environmentalists say.
Environmental activists were quick to call out the hypocrisy of Obama’s rousing speech on climate change. Just minutes after the president stepped off the podium, the group Greenpeace released a statement saying,
“It’s time for the president to stop talking about urgency, and stop approving extreme fossil fuel projects like Shell’s Arctic drilling plans.”
Drilling isn’t the only way that Obama’s policies could negatively affect the Arctic: on Tuesday, the White House announced that it would be urging Congress to speed up construction of American icebreaker ships. In its press release, the White House said that the ships will be used to, “meet our national interests [and] protect and manage our natural resources”.
Icebreakers are used to cut through thick sea ice, creating safe paths for merchant ships and other vessels to use. Right now, the United has just two fully-functioning icebreakers; Russia, America’s biggest strategic adversary in the Arctic, has 40 icebreakers, with plans to build another 11 in the near future.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that there could be up to 412 billion barrels of oil reserves in the Arctic. Russia, the United States and a handful of other nations that border the Arctic are currently involved in a diplomatic land grab, making conflicting territorial claims (under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty) in an effort to secure as much of the Arctic oil as possible.
For more on the territorial battles over the Arctic check out this Guardian interactive entitled, “The New Cold War: Drilling for Oil and Gas in the Arctic”.