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Obama's Climate Change Words And Actions Don't Match, Alaskans Say


Something about President Obama's latest move speaks to the ambition of a president in its final two years. The tallest mountain on this continent will bear a different name because of him, and it's a powerfully symbolic change.


The Interior Department will rename Mount McKinley. It will revert to its old native name - Denali - which means the great one.

INSKEEP: This is bad news to House Speaker John Boehner from President William McKinley's Ohio.

MONTAGNE: It's welcome news to Alaska's Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski.


LISA MURKOWSKI: I'd like to thank the president for working with us to achieve this significant change to show honor, respect and gratitude to the Athabascan people of Alaska.

MONTAGNE: Although her gratitude does not extend to other issues. The president is starting a three-day trip to Alaska. Murkowski says he's just using the state as a backdrop to talk about climate change.

INSKEEP: Climate is the president's main focus on this trip, and on that subject, in Alaska, climate skeptics and environmentalists alike question the president. John Ryan reports from our member station KUCB in the Aleutian Islands.

JOHN RYAN, BYLINE: The Obama administration hopes this visit will help sell the president's proposals to rein in America's greenhouse gas emissions. A White House video promoting the Alaska trip is filled with images of dripping glaciers and raging wildfires.


BARACK OBAMA: What's happening in Alaska isn't just a preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don't action. It's our wake-up call. The alarm bells are ringing, and as long as I'm president, America will lead the world to meet this threat before it's too late.

RYAN: The president's agenda includes seeing the state's melting glaciers up close and meeting some of the rural Alaskans hit hardest by climate change.

REGGIE JOULE: The changes that we have been seeing over time seem to have accelerated.

RYAN: Reggie Joule is former state legislator. The Democrat is now mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough. Obama is scheduled to fly there on Wednesday. One native village in the borough has been seeking funding for more than decade to relocate before it gets washed into the Arctic Ocean.

JOULE: But not just on the coast. It's in river as well. Every single one of our communities in our borough have some level of impact of climate change.

RYAN: That borough is bigger than Indiana. Even where the hazards from fossil fuel use are stark, Joule says the economic benefits are great. Government in Alaska runs mostly on oil taxes.

JOULE: It is a conundrum for us because we are feeling the effects of global activity.

RYAN: With Alaska's icy landscapes melting and villages eroding into the sea, few Alaskans deny that the climate is changing anymore. They do question how big a priority it should be. The state's entire congressional delegation has been urging the president to learn about Alaskan issues other than climate change while he's in the far north. Rather than cheering a president's visit, Alaskan environmental groups are organizing a protest rally. They say President Obama can't claim to be a climate leader after his administration gave the green light to Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic Ocean.

DANIELLE REDMOND: We know that offshore drilling in the Arctic is not compatible with a stable climate feature.

RYAN: Danielle Redmond is an activist with the Alaska Climate Action Network.

REDMOND: And yet the Obama administration approved Shell's final permits just days before coming up here to host a conference highlighting climate change in the Arctic. It's really just an absolute contradiction.

RYAN: Global diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are meeting in Anchorage, and Obama will join them. Negotiators have been trying to put the brakes on global warming for years. They have agreed on the goal of allowing no more than two degrees Celsius of warming this century. As study by energy researchers this year found that goal requires leaving most fossil fuels in the ground. Christophe McGlade from University College London is the lead author of that paper in the journal Nature.

CHRISTOPHE MCGLADE: The results indicate that all of the Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable.

RYAN: McGlade says, in theory, you could burn Arctic Ocean oil and avoid dangerous levels of climate pollution, but that would require the rest of the world not to burn any of its oil. And that scenario is extremely unlikely. For NPR News, I'm John Ryan in Unalaska, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.