President Obama is placing climate change at the forefront of national issues he plans to tackle during his remaining few months in office.
To hear the White House describe Alaska, the state has become the canary in the climate change coal mine, complete with raging wildfires, accelerating ice melt in the arctic, vanishing glaciers and whole villages forced to relocate away from rising seas.
President Barack Obama will carry that urgent message to Alaska this week in the hopes his long journey away from his busy agenda in Washington will begin to change the national conversation on global warming.
His first step while he’s there: officially renaming the country’s tallest mountain from Mt. McKinley to Denali, an historic nod to the region’s native population, which the White House says is under threat from the already-present threat of climate change.
“This is all real. This is happening to our fellow Americans right now,” Obama said in his weekly address Saturday.
All week long, Obama will try to call attention to Alaska as a kind of climate change ground zero. Whether it’s a hike on a melting glacier near the town of Seward or his visit with fisherman in the remote coastal village of Dillingham, the President wants a distracted public to see the jarring effects of global warming through his own eyes.
To maximize the impact of the historic trip, which will make Obama the first sitting U.S. president to visit the arctic, the White House plans to devote all of the resources of its potent social media operation.
It’s also using the trip to formalize the Denali name change, which native Alaskans have sought for decades. Named McKinley in 1896, shortly after President William McKinley was nominated as a candidate for office, the 20,320-foot peak has long been known locally as Denali, its name in the indigenous Athabascan language.
The national park that surrounds the mountain was named Denali in 1980, but the peak itself is still listed in official federal documents as McKinley. Past attempts to make the change were blocked by lawmakers from McKinley’s home state of Ohio.
Obama is set to meet Monday with members of the native population to discuss ways the federal government can help them prepare for the effects of a changing climate, which the White House says include interrupted winter hunting seasons, newly hostile conditions for fish and wildlife and seawater encroaching on long-settled territory.
“The issue of climate change is not an issue of the future tense in Alaska, it is affecting people’s lives and their livelihoods in real ways,” White House senior adviser Brian Deese said in a preview of the three-day trip.
During a conference call with reporters, Deese laid out the administration’s latest data on the climate challenges facing Alaskans.
The arctic has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world and portions of northern Alaska have lost a “football field’s worth of land a day to coast erosions and sea-level rise,” Deese said.
Wildfires have scorched “5 million acres of land, which is approximately the size of my home state of Massachusetts,” he added.
Later this year, Obama will return to the issue of global warming when he meets with Pope Francis in September and again at a climate conference in Paris in December.