On Alaska visit, Obama pushes Arctic agenda

President Barack Obama is headed to Alaska for a climate change conference, a reality show shoot, and a stop above the Arctic Circle. While the US eyes the Arctic for its energy and military potential, its capabilities in the region are lagging behind.

Though this will be Obama’s second visit to Alaska, after a brief stop in Anchorage in 2009, he is scheduled to travel to a town above the Arctic Circle on Wednesday, making him the first US president to do so while in office.

In Monday remarks at the GLACIER conference, Obama repeatedly said that the world is not moving fast enough on climate change, but that it can still act to avoid lasting damage.

"We're not acting fast enough," he said. "Even if we cannot reverse the damage we’ve already caused," Obama said, "we have the means ... to avoid irreparable harm.”

The president said that this year's climate summit in Paris must result in success.

"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," he said.

The White House is promoting the Alaska visit as part of Obama’s push for climate change action. That will be a leading topic at the GLACIER summit in Anchorage on Monday evening. The Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience will be attended by Alaska natives and officials from the US and other Arctic countries, including Russia.

GLACIER is hosted by the US Department of State, and is unrelated to the US chairmanship of the Arctic Council, an international advisory body also including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden.

With the Arctic ice receding by 65 percent over the past four decades opening up access to natural resources and shipping routes, the region has become a subject of renewed interest. Reserves of oil and natural gas under the Arctic Ocean have been estimated at 90 billion barrels and 1670 trillion cubic feet, respectively.

For all its concern about the environment, in July the Obama administration issued a permit to Royal Dutch Shell for exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea. Environmentalist groups have denounced the decision, and sought to block Shell’s ships and oil rigs from staging their operations out of Seattle. Obama has shrugged off the criticism, arguing that domestic oil production was vital to US jobs and energy independence.

Alaska lawmakers have urged greater US engagement in the region for the past several years, blasting the current capabilities as “woefully behind” other Arctic countries. As of 2013, the US had four icebreakers in active service, none of them nuclear; Canada had six, while Russia had 37.

Both Russia and NATO have held massive military drills in the Arctic earlier this year, deploying new hardware and forces in the region. This escalation of military activity is not necessarily about the struggle for resources, but ties into a broader conflict between Russia and the US-led bloc, Rob Huebert of the Center for Military and Strategic Studies told RT.

“The military capabilities that are being developed are very powerful,” Huebert said, “and of course, are going to entirely change the security structure of the Arctic region."

During his three-day tour, Obama is supposed to visit Kotzebue, known to the locals as Qikiqtagruk, home to about 3,000 people above the Arctic Circle. On Monday, NBC also announced that the president will make an appearance on ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls,’ a popular reality show. The episode, presumably filmed during Obama’s scheduled visit to the Exit Glacier on Tuesday, will be shown later this year. The salmon-fishing town of Dillingham and the Kenai Fjords National Park are also on Obama’s agenda.

Most of the media’s attention has been on Obama’s symbolic gesture of restoring the native name to North America’s highest mountain. Rising 20,237 feet (6,168 m) above sea level, the peak has always been called Denali, or ‘Great One,’ by the native Athabaskan people. During the gold rush of 1896, however, a prospector named it after William McKinley, then a presidential candidate. McKinley was assassinated in 1901, six months into his second term, after presiding over the US conquest of Cuba and the Philippines from Spain.

“Generally believed to be central to the Athabaskan creation story, Denali is a site of significant cultural importance to many Alaska natives,” the White House said in a statement announcing the change.

Though Alaska lawmakers have lobbied to restore the mountain’s name since 1975, legislators from McKinley’s home state of Ohio have fought to block the move. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. Fellow Republican and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, however, was supportive.

The first sitting US president to visit Alaska was Warren Gamaliel Harding, in 1923. The most frequent presidential visitor was George W. Bush, who was in Alaska three times during his term in office, and also the only US president to have lived in the state, for several months in 1971. That same year, Richard Nixon was in Alaska to meet with Emperor Hirohito, the first Emperor of Japan to set foot on US soil.

A former Russian colony, Alaska was sold to the US in 1867, at a price of 2 cents per acre, or $7.2 million (approximately 121 million in today’s dollars). It was not until the discovery of gold in the 1890s that the US realized the true value of the territory, though.