Time for Presidential Leadership in the Arctic

President Obama's upcoming trip to Alaska offers a chance to stand strong on climate -- and protect one of Earth's last ocean frontiers.

President Obama travels to Alaska on Monday, kicking off a three-day visit meant to spotlight warming temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas, and other hallmarks of climate change -- and the toll it's taking on the people there.

The trip gives the president a golden opportunity to demonstrate global leadership, protect one of the last wild places on earth, and make a real difference in our climate future by taking Arctic waters off the table for oil and gas drilling.

Here's why we need him to do it.

Climate change is already imposing huge and mounting costs on our people, and nowhere is the toll more evident than in Alaska. Straddling the ragged front lines of climate chaos, the state both suffers from this environmental crisis and contributes to it through the production of fossil fuels.

One of the most rapidly warming places on the planet, Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the nation. The first seven months of this year were the second-hottest ever recorded for the period in the state, which averaged 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit above its 20th-century norm.

Its glaciers and ice fields are melting by the cubic mile and at an accelerating pace, as President Obama will see for himself when he travels outside the city of Seward, site of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Melting glaciers are one reason climate scientists say global sea level is on track to rise by at least three feet -- very possibly much more -- by century's end.

The president will hear how the loss of coastline is already affecting indigenous people when he visits the northern port of Kotzebue, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in a state that is home to 40 percent of the federally recognized tribes in our country.

He'll likely see and smell the smoke, moreover, from wildfires that have burned a breathtaking 5.2 million acres (see statewide totals, pg. 1) of Alaskan wilderness this year alone. That's enough to cover an area nearly the size of New Jersey, forest gone to flame as hot weather combined with low snow cover to turn precious habitat into kindling.

President Obama's answer to the climate threat has been clear and unstinting. No leader anywhere has done more to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving climate chaos. He's cut it from our cars, our trucks, and our power plants, and he's laid out an expansive vision for a clean energy future centered around efficiency gains and more wind and solar power.

He's opposed efforts to allow oil and gas development on Alaska's vastArctic National Wildlife Reserve, nearly 12 million acres of which he's proposed to designate as protected wilderness, which would put it off-limits to the fossil-fuel industry in perpetuity.

That's leadership when and where it counts, and it's come in the face of virulent opposition by an industry hunkering down to anchor our future in the dirty fuels of the past and all the damage, destruction, and danger they bring.

This president, though, has also proposed allowing oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean and off the Atlantic coast, beginning as early as 2017. He's permitted exploratory drilling in Arctic waters, which Shell Oil began this month.

That's a mistake. President Obama needs to turn this misguided approach around. We can't afford to expose Arctic and Atlantic waters to the risk of a blowout reminiscent of BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster five years ago. And we can't further fuel the global climate crisis by tapping the carbon pollution beneath these seas.

One of the last ocean frontiers on earth, the Arctic waters off Alaska's coast are a sanctuary for marine life, from the tiniest phytoplankton to the largest bowhead whale. Eiders, walruses, caribou, and polar bears depend upon Arctic ice and healthy coastal reaches. And these waters are among the most productive fisheries in the world, teaming with crabs, salmon, pollock, and other species.

As harsh as it is precious, the Arctic is a place where pack ice makes sea travel all but impossible eight months out of the year for anything other than icebreakers. Gale force winds can churn up waves as high as a three-story building. Wind-chill temperatures reach 10 degrees below zero by late September.

The oil and gas industry proved it's no match for these conditions three years ago, when a misbegotten Shell venture resulted in the company losing control of two drilling rigs, one of which drifted free, crashed into rocks, and had to be rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

We're not going to turn the Arctic Ocean into an industrial sacrifice zone where heavy equipment runs wildly amok. We're not going to uncork the fossil-fuel pollution its oil would just as recklessly dump into the atmosphere, fueling climate chaos worldwide. And we're not going to cancel out our climate gains by cutting carbon pollution with one hand and opening the gates to a new generation of carbon pollution with the other. That just doesn't make sense.

Oil companies have coveted Arctic profits for decades. Even today, the industry tells us this oil won't be produced for another 15 to 30 years from now.

Memo from our grandchildren: We're not going to be addicted to oil 30 years from now. Let's be honest with ourselves. If we're still burning so much oil three decades from now that we have to put Arctic waters at risk, we will have forsaken the promise of a clean energy future. We will have forsaken our obligation to our children, with catastrophic consequences.

President Obama has never been one to bet on failure. He's worked, instead, to ensure success. The Alaska trip offers him a historic chance to build on hope and progress. It's time to protect the Arctic waters once and for all, for the sake of all they support, for the sake of our climate, for the sake of our children's future.