Obama wraps up tour on climate’s front lines: the Arctic

President Obama ended his three-day tour of Alaska on Wednesday along the western coast—first in Dillingham and then Kotzebue—where he officially unveiled new initiatives aimed at helping Alaska’s rural villages cope with climate change in the fast-thawing Arctic.

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Wednesday night it was Kotzebue's turn to say it: "The eagle has landed." Photo: Kaysie Ellingson/Alaska Public Media.
Wednesday night it was Kotzebue’s turn to say it: “The eagle has landed.” Photo: Kaysie Ellingson/Alaska Public Media.

An Arctic conference in Anchorage, hiking glaciers in Seward, and getting hands-on with salmon in Bristol Bay—all a prelude to President Barack Obama’s final stop on his tour of Alaska, which ended in Kotzebue last night. And when he landed, it was to an ebullient welcome.

As a regional hub for 10 remote villages about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, Kotzebue is where Obama came closest to actually seeing the communities he’s touted throughout his trip as being imperiled by climate change. Communities like Kivalina, whose native village president Millie Hawley says sees the those impacts in the environment … and their food supply.

“We barely got any seal, the bearded seal is what we rely on year-round. Usually we get 80 in the community per year. This year, we got eight. We’ve lost the migration of the beluga, the changes in the migration of the caribou. Even thought we try to protect our children from worry, or fear, they sense that things are happening to their home.”

How to address a complex issue in a meaningful way? The president took to the podium at the Kotzebue junior and senior high school to outline plans for a joint tribal, state, and federal effort to help plan—and pay for—more than 30 communities in rural Alaska looking to relocate—or rebuild. Obama calls it “climate resilience.” The effort will be led by the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency that’s worked on Alaska infrastructure projects for nearly 20 years.

“This is going to cut through bureaucracy and red tape, frees up communities like yours to develop and implement solutions for events like coastal erosion, and flooding, and permafrost degradation.”

The Denali Commission is also bringing $2 million to the table for relocation efforts. And while “relocation” is the goal for communities like Kivalina, clean water and function sewer systems remain elusive for many rural communities. In his Kotzebue speech the president announced a revision on eligibility with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Alaska Village Program—opening the doors to more than 30 communities for water and sewer grants.

“You shouldn’t wait until disaster strikes. We should see if we can invest in communities before disaster strikes to prevent. And so today we’re announcing $17 million in USDA rural water grants for infrastructure projects in remote Alaskan communities.”

But is it enough? Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Reggie Joule lives in Kotzebue. The borough has fewer than 8,000 people spread out over an area larger than the state of Kentucky. Estimates put the cost of relocating just one village at more than $100 million with emergency evacuation roads costing as much as two million a mile.

“None of what we have on the plate, none of what many parts of rural Alaska are asking for, are things on a wish list. They’re things that people need.”

The president ended his trip with a tour of Kotzebue’s Shore Avenue, a reinforced roadway along the coast that local leaders held up as an example of engineering that overcomes climate challenges—something they say Alaska desperately needs more of. In his speech, Obama says fast action is essential—and he pledged the federal government’s support.

“There is such a thing as being too late. The effects can be irreversible, if we don’t act. And that moment is almost here. And you this better than anybody. I want you to know, as your president, I’m here to make sure you get the support that you need.”

Is it puppy love? The president nabs a snuggle with a pup named Feather. Photo: Matthew Smith / KNOM.
Is it puppy love? The president nabs a snuggle with a pup named Feather. Photo: Matthew Smith / KNOM.

But before flying out—a final detour—a brief moment with Iditarod musher John Baker. The president donned a “Team Baker” jackets for a picture with Baker’s prize-winning pups—with the Commander in Chief even cradling a blue-eyed puppy named Feather. A quick photo posing behind Baker’s dogsled, and then a quick hop from motorcade to airplane before the president was gone.

Like many Alaskans, most in Kotzebue saw President Obama only at arm’s length. A handshake, or a glimpse as he walked amid a throng of secret service, staff, and reporters. But many say they’re happy he came—with the hope that making Kotzebue his final stop will cause the conversation about the American Arctic to finally start.

Matthew Smith is a reporter at KNOM in Nome.

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