An Arctic Charade: Obama’s Alaskan Tour

President Obama’s summer of climate change is a perfect microcosm of just how absurd and fantastical reality in the 21st century has become. In a stunning display of political dexterity, the President managed to drive the probable stake through the heart of hopes for meaningful climate change mitigation, while simultaneously presenting himself as a dedicated, wilderness loving crusader aiming to save the planet.

“Later this month, I’m going to Alaska. And I’m going because Alaskans are on the frontlines of one of the greatest challenges we face this century: climate change,” the President announced in an explanatory video earlier this summer, backed up by a dramatic piano solo with images of melting ice.

Emphasizing the almost inherent intractability of climate change, Obama then stressed that “I’ll talk with other nations about how we can tackle this challenge together.”

Climate change, though, is not merely a “challenge.” It is an existential threat to complex human society, whose causes require serious diagnosis and treatment. By framing climate change as a vague and insolvable “challenge”, as if it is some far away mystery, the Obama administration manages to avoid any substantive conversation on how to mitigate the crisis.

The Obama Administration’s decision to approve the creation of more Arctic ice breakers serves as a perfect—albeit disturbing—example of Obama’s deliberately empty rhetoric on climate change and its devastating consequences. I include one notable excerpt from The White House’s “Fact Sheet” on the decision below:

“Climate change is reshaping the Arctic in profound ways…Among the most noticeable changes is the retreat of Arctic sea ice, which has experienced significant, sustained declines in both extent and thickness in recent decades. As sea-ice cover diminishes because of climate change, marine traffic is expected to increase in the Arctic, including traffic from fishing and mineral exploration to cargo shipping and tourism.”

In short, the Obama administration recognizes, if not embraces, the impact of climate change in the Arctic, and intends to exploit it as an opportunity for growth. And, no, the Obama Administration is not merely interested in expanding its collection of prized gems. “Mineral exploration,” is of course coded language for the exploitation of petroleum resources, which will only add momentum to the global death spiral.

Like a puppet attached to strings, reputable, mainstream media uncritically choruses this Thanatos drive. Below, see how the New York Times explained (i.e., reiterated without critique) Obama’s call for more of these ice breakers:

“The retreat of Arctic sea ice has created opportunities for shipping, tourism, mineral exploration and fishing, but the rush of marine traffic that has followed is bringing new difficulties.”

Only according to the logic of capital does the wanton destruction of a hospitable climate—the only one that exists in the known universe—appear as an opportunity for the expansion of the status quo. This logic is made even more offensive when coupled with the apparent consternation of the President towards climate change. No, Mr. President. This is not a head scratcher. This is not complicated. You do not need to go on a wilderness tour with survival expert Bear Grylls to comprehend it. Your actions, your decisions are not only amplifying the crisis, they are exploiting it for further profit.

Moreover, the “increased marine traffic” does not exist in a vacuum, nor does it refer to relatively benign (though certainly not irrelevant) movement of cruise ships. Rather, one can assume it refers to Arctic drilling permits, which the Obama Administration recently granted to Shell. Indeed, for the first time in three years, Shell—with the necessary approval from the President—will continue drilling for oil and natural gas in the Arctic. Not only will this intensify global climate change, but it poses a grotesque amount of risk. A busted well or pipeline, which seems inevitable given basic reasoning, is virtually unmanageable in Arctic conditions.

Obama, in terms of the decisions he makes, is thus in perfect agreeance with corporate sociopaths like Shell’s Peter Slaiby (VP, Shell Alaska) who stated, “I will be one of those persons most cheering for an endless summer in Alaska,” due to increased opportunities for profit from Arctic drilling.

While depressing, none of this is shocking from an Administration adept at faking left and going right. In the Administration’s description of their “All of the Above” energy plan, you will find one of the most head-scratchingly incoherent pieces of policy sorcery ever concocted. The first, summary sentence reads:

“The United States is producing more oil and natural gas; generating more electricity from renewables such as wind and solar; and consuming less petroleum while holding electricity consumption constant.”

This is nothing more than political doublespeak. In terms of climate change, consumption rates are basically meaningless when contrasted against the ever increasing production of oil and natural gas. And while expanded production of renewables is certainly worth investment, it cannot negate the increase in development of fossil fuels. Simply put, the global production of fossil fuels must be drastically reduced in order to seriously address climate change.

The brief policy description page uses the words growth, economy, and development in some form or combination 29 times. The page also boasts of the tremendous growth of the energy sector at large during the Obama Administration. They are particularly proud of the exponential growth of natural gas drilling, which leaks methane—a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide—and threatens groundwater quality.

In short, the energy plan is in complete accord with the Administration’s egregious support for the expansion of petroleum exploitation in arguably the world’s most vulnerable ecosystem, at a time where human society stands on the precipice of potentially irreversible global catastrophe. And here lies the truth the of the matter: the Obama Administration is both powerless and unwilling to deny the growth of the fossil fuel industry.

Obama can rename all the mountains, go to all the conferences, and take all the rural hikes he wants to. But, despite what many of his supporters in politics and the media will argue, it is all meaningless without a serious critique of the current mode of production, along with forceful actions aimed to slow the growth of needlessly dangerous production and accumulation. This socioeconomic understanding of the ecological crisis is a prerequisite for its adequate addressment.

From a political perspective, the tour of Alaska obfuscates Obama’s own role in the proliferation of climate change. It shields him from justified scrutiny. Moreover, it furthers the narrative that climate change is a puzzle to be solved, requiring some grand, camera filled wilderness adventure to even begin to understand. Simply put, climate change is not that complicated in its origins. In like manner, the steps to mitigate it are not that difficult to comprehend.

And yet, here we are. We live in a period of unprecedented scientific understanding of the natural world. However, as this understanding increases, and as the warnings become more severe, climate change seems to only become a grander mystery in the political world. It is amalgamated by the politics of spectacle. The same politics of spectacle that obfuscates the similar origins of poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression. The same politics that invents a grand publicity tour to distract from policy decisions that directly increase the chances of the same global ecological crisis that said tour purports to address.

I do not wholly agree with Dave Lindorff’s main point in his article, published last week in Counterpunch, that Obama may go down as the worst president ever. This would imply that others who came before him (as well as after) were all that much better. Instead, Obama is an actor functioning exactly how he is supposed to in a system whose script is already written for him.

In regards to climate change, this script is now entering its grim dénouement. As has been iterated time and time again, we are running out of time. Left wing movements must organize and coalesce around common ground issues, like climate change, that disproportionately affect the vulnerable and oppressed. Alternative ways of consuming, producing, and governing must be demonstrated and advocated for by social movements and community groups. Finally, growth paradigm actors—particularly the state and labor unions—must be pressured to enact substantive changes in rhetoric and policy. A carbon tax, with revenue used to boost welfare and green jobs programs, along with a moratorium on fossil fuel development would be reasonable starting points for negotiations.

Climate change, as President Obama himself once quipped, is not a hoax or a joke. Neither, though, are its solutions. They do not exist hidden in the most remote part of Alaska. They are right in front of our eyes. We simply must wipe the fog of the growth paradigm off our glasses in order to realize them.

Timothy Clark is a teacher, writer, researcher, and student, working towards a PhD in Sociology at North Carolina State University. .