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Barack Obama hopes to bolster green credibility with trip to Alaska

US President faces accusations of hypocrisy after granting drilling licences to Shell

David Usborne
Tuesday 01 September 2015 06:40 BST

Barack Obama was facing an uncertain welcome as he touched down in Anchorage, Alaska, last night intent on amplifying his call for global action on climate change – but braced for scepticism from environmentalists who are livid over his granting of drilling licences in the region to Shell.

The visit to Alaska marks the President’s latest attempt to bolster America’s credibility – and his own – ahead of a UN summit in Paris in December to forge a new global treaty to curb emissions. But also gathered in Anchorage were green groups bent on calling him out as a hypocrite because of the Shell drilling.

Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, was a no-show at a meeting in Anchorage of Arctic countries and other interested governments last night, a reminder that as summer ice recedes, tensions have grown between Moscow and Washington over access to Arctic Circle shipping lanes as well as energy and mineral deposits.

As he seeks to highlight the impact that rising temperatures are already having on Alaska, Mr Obama will go hiking today on a part of the great Exit Glacier near Seward, which has retreated one-and-a-quarter miles in recent years. Tomorrow he will become the first sitting US president to step inside the Arctic Circle as he visits Kotzebue in the north-west of the state that is battling coastal erosion as sea levels rise.

In what may be another first for a US president, Mr Obama will also tape a guest appearance on Running Wild with Bear Grylls, an Alaska-based reality TV show about survival in the wilderness. “Rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community,” Mr Obama said in his weekly radio message on Saturday, referring to Kivalina, a town north of Kotzebue that will soon have to be abandoned. “Think about that. If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect ourselves. Climate change poses the same threat, right now.”

In a gesture to Native Americans in Alaska, Mr Obama decreed that Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,237ft, be renamed Denali, an Athabascan name that means “the high one”. The change drew praise in Alaska but was denounced by some Republicans in Ohio, the home of President William McKinley. “I’m deeply disappointed in this decision,” John Boehner, the House Speaker, said.

According to a White House official, Alaska has warmed at twice the speed of anywhere else in the world. “The issue of climate change is not an issue of the future tense in Alaska,” Brian Deese said.

It’s that context that makes the Obama administration’s decision last month to give final permits to Shell to drill for oil in Alaska seem so anachronistic to some activists.

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