President Barack Obama crossed the Arctic Circle on Wednesday in a first by a sitting U.S. president, telling residents in a far-flung Alaska village that their plight should be the world’s wake-up call on global warming.
Alaska, a state of only 700,000 people, is conservative and backed Obama’s opponents in 2008 and 2012, but the president’s celebrity appeal overshadowed the political misgivings of many as he travelled the vast state. Everywhere he went, residents made signs, crowded into restaurants and pulled over on roadsides to catch a glimpse.
Obama came to Alaska with no grand policy pronouncements or promises of massive federal aid. Instead, he sought to use the changes to Alaska’s breathtaking landscape to put pressure on leaders in the U.S. and abroad to cut greenhouse gas emissions, as he works to secure a global climate treaty that he hopes will form a cornerstone of his environmental legacy.
The White House said Obama would use the visit to draw public attention to those consequences and the risks to Alaska’s tiny coastal communities, some of which could be forced to relocate because of climate change. A number have already chosen to move but have no funds to do so.
Alaska Natives have joined the president in sounding the alarm on climate change. Yet the obstacles they confront daily in rural Alaska extend far deeper, raising questions about whether the federal government has done enough to help.
Alaska officials say well over $2 billion in federal and state funds have been spent over the last 50 years to bring indoor plumbing to rural Alaska, but the challenge is finding money to build water and sewer systems in nearly three dozen village that still lack them.
Alaska has no state sales tax or income tax, leaving it particularly reliant on oil-and-gas revenues to pay for critical services such as road repairs and state troopers. The state’s second-largest sector is the federal government, which provided Alaska $2.5 billion in revenues in fiscal year 2014, or about 15 percent of the state total. Attempts to diversify the economy, whether by expanding tourism, boosting trade or growing the fishing sector, have so far failed to take root.