Obama Takes Climate Message to Alaska, Where Change Is Rapid

Source: By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, New York Times • Posted: Thursday, September 3, 2015

President Obama with local commercial fishermen, holding a silver salmon, on Kanakanak Beach in Dillingham on Wednesday, Mr. Obama’s third day in Alaska. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times 

KOTZEBUE, Alaska — In this native village situated on a gravel spit above the Arctic Circle, life is changing more quickly than the Alaskans who have lived off the land and water here for thousands of years can keep pace with.

“The ice is the biggest thing,” said Dominic Ivanoff, 28, a leader of Kotzebue’s tribal council. He used to need two foot-long auger extensions to cut holes through the thick ice when he went fishing in April. Now, he said, the ice is thin enough that he needs none.

The situation is even more severe in smaller villages surrounding this remote slice of northwest Alaska, where climate change is not a political talking point or a theoretical scientific phenomenon but a punishing everyday reality. Some communities are sinking into the water, as erosion and melting permafrost wash away their foundations.

In a history-making stop — the first presidential visit to Arctic Alaska — Mr. Obama delivered a speech laying out new federal efforts to help these communities cope with coastal erosion and high energy costs and, in some extreme cases, relocate altogether.

Coming at the end of a trip he used to call attention to the challenge of climate change and to rally support in the United States and globally to address it, the announcement of the new efforts was a bid to draw attention to places that are feeling the effects most acutely.

“If your people are in a dire situation, if you allow whole communities to no longer exist, that reflects you as a leader,” said Diane Ramoth of Sewalik, an inland village of 900 people that has been trying for 10 years to relocate to higher ground but has struggled to find the money to do it. “Our village is going to be under water.”

On the mostly gravel and dirt streets of this town surrounded by water, where caribou and moose antlers adorn wooden houses on pilings and where pickup trucks and all-terrain vehicles are the mode of transportation of choice, residents said they were grateful for the focus Mr. Obama was putting on their difficulties, and for the new promises of federal support.

Townspeople flocked under a gray sky to a gymnasium here to see Mr. Obama, many of them wearing brightly colored traditional Inuit parkas known as atigluks.

“If there becomes, as a result of all of this, a focal point where communities that are really facing the brunt of this climate change crisis can go to get their issues addressed or get answers or make their case, that would be the best that could come of this,” said Reggie Joule, the mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough. “It means that America has chosen to engage in a way that can help our people, and we have a president at the helm saying that these are important issues.”

But there is also a hefty dose of skepticism from a native population that has often felt ignored, marginalized and victimized by the federal and state governments, and a sense that Mr. Obama’s efforts do not come close to meeting their urgent needs.

The president announced that the Denali Commission, the federal agency that coordinates government assistance to communities in Alaska, would oversee short- and long-term programs to safeguard and repair the coastal villages, and was committing $2 million to such initiatives, including “voluntary relocation efforts, where appropriate.”

“What is $2 million going to give us?” Ms. Ramoth said with a rueful smile. “A dream?”

At the borough hall on Third Avenue, not far from the sea wall built three years ago to cope with storm surges made worse by a rising sea, tribal leaders said climate change was affecting every aspect of their lives, fulfilling age-old prophecies of the transformations that would follow the arrival of white people in Alaska.

“That Maniilaq prophecy said things would change, and now we’re seeing the change to climate,” said Merle Custer of Shungnak, referring to an Inupiat healer and prophet who is said to have predicted in the 19th century, before Europeans arrived in Arctic Alaska, that white people would come and transform the world, bringing boats that were powered by fire or flew in the air. “It’s changing fast.”

Earlier, in Dillingham, where Mr. Obama visited with fishermen and clapped along and joined in as schoolchildren dressed in native attire performed Yup’ik dances, he spoke of the importance of preserving ancient traditions and livelihoods.

“It represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has,” Mr. Obama said of subsistence salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. “This is one of the reasons why we have shut off oil and gas exploration in this region. It is too fragile, and it is too important.”

But in Kotzebue, where bearded seals bobbed their heads above the water and dived for fish in the bay, the issue of energy exploration is less clear cut. Oil and gas drilling is an important economic driver. Royal Dutch Shell has parked equipment nearby and situated some staff members in the village, and Mr. Obama’s recent decision to allow drilling a few hundred miles north in the Chukchi Sea is popular.

“It’s a double-edged sword for us, because we know that the industry does help to create climate change, but we understand that it’s going to do that anyway, and if it has to happen, we want our people to benefit from that development,” said Maija Lukin, the mayor of Kotzebue.

Mr. Obama briefly diverted Air Force One on its way to Kotzebue to fly over the isolated barrier island of Kivalina, which is increasingly at risk of being wiped out by erosion and storm surges.

“If another country threatened to wipe out an American town, we’d do everything in our power to protect it,” Mr. Obama told a crowd in Kotzebue that greeted him with seal barks, a traditional native Alaskan cheer. “Well, climate change poses the same threat right now.”

He was introduced by Millie Hawley, a tribal leader from Kivalina, who put the matter in stark terms, saying the eight-mile island she calls home may soon be underwater.

“My current home may not exist 10 years from now,” she said.