President Obama in Alaska: The Science Shows the Time to Act on Climate is Now

September 1, 2015 | 5:42 pm
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

President Obama’s speech to the GLACIER conference on Arctic leadership in Anchorage yesterday signaled just how seriously he takes the need to act on climate change. His starkest warning was that “On this issue, of all issues, there is such a thing as being too late. That moment is almost upon us.”


Photo: Adam Markham

It wasn’t the president’s first speech about climate change but was certainly his most somber and detailed, and it injected a much-needed note of urgency into the diplomatic preparations for the Paris climate negotiations in November.

For the first time he acknowledged the threat of accelerated global warming if massive carbon releases result from the thawing of the permafrost which has already begun. He also described a growing catalogue of impact including worsening wildfires, melting ice, rising seas, eroding coasts, ocean acidification, and species migrations—all of which can be clearly seen already in Alaska.

We’re not acting fast enough

The president said:

“…if we do nothing, temperatures in Alaska are projected to rise between six and 12 degrees by the end of the century, triggering more melting, more fires, more thawing of the permafrost, a negative feedback loop, a cycle—warming leading to more warming—that we do not want to be a part of. And the fact is that climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. That, ladies and gentlemen, must change. We’re not acting fast enough.”

He went on to say that none of the 18 nations represented at the GLACIER conference were doing enough to address climate change, and blasted “the critics and the cynics and the deniers” that plead ignorance. And the president said that politicians should not gamble on the future of the planet, saying that “any 
so-called leader who does not take this issue seriously or treats it like a joke—is not fit to lead.”

The speech was a forceful and sober assessment of the situation we have got ourselves into and a recognition that we are running out of time to effectively address it. Those in the room had no doubt that the president meant every word of what he said. And he can’t fail to be gravely moved when he goes on the road to see the melting glaciers and meet fishing communities and at-risk Native Alaskans this week.

But the question remains—can the president build the political will in the U.S. to bring together the solutions needed at the scale required to meet this daunting challenge? He certainly left us with the impression that he’s going to try.

Posted in: Climate Change

Tags: Alaska, Obama

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Adam Markham is deputy director for climate at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He helps lead UCS efforts to persuade policymakers to rapidly and effectively respond to the climate crisis, focusing particularly on international climate policy, non-economic loss and damage, biodiversity and cultural heritage.