US President Barack Obama takes climate drive to Alaska

A sign is seen at a coffee shop on Monday across the street from the Dena’ina Convention Center, in Anchorage, Alaska where US president Barack Obama will deliver a speech, after announcing a decision to rename Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain
A sign is seen at a coffee shop on Monday across the street from the Dena’ina Convention Center, in Anchorage, Alaska where US president Barack Obama will deliver a speech, after announcing a decision to rename Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America with local name Denali. PHOTO: AFP

ANCHORAGE (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Monday left the White House for Alaska, where he hopes to highlight the impact of climate change - and get some survival tips from TV adventure show host Bear Grylls.

Obama will attend an international conference on the Arctic to deliver a speech designed to dramatically underscore the impact of global warming on the environment.

Climate change is a hot-button issue in the United States, with many Republicans expressing doubts that human actions are truly influencing temperatures.

By visiting glaciers and vulnerable fishing communities, Obama hopes to put those doubts to bed, as he tries to build support for an international pact to curb warming.

Rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, melting permafrost: the effects of climate change are stark in this vast but sparsely populated state.

Obama's visit comes just months before a crucial UN conference - known as COP21 - in December that will aim to cap global temperature increases by two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

While visiting Alaska, Obama will also meet native leaders - after announcing a decision to rename Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, with local name Denali.

The mountain had been named in 1896 for William McKinley, who would become the nation's 25th president. But local authorities had worked on the change for years, restoring an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance.

The move was met with anger by McKinley's fellow Ohio Republican, John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives.

"There is a reason President McKinley's name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy," Boehner said Monday.

"I'm deeply disappointed in this decision." While in Alaska, Obama will also get a "crash course in survival techniques" from insect-eating British adventurer Bear Grylls, US television producers said.

Obama will appear on an upcoming episode of "Running Wild With Bear Grylls," television network NBC said.

Grylls, a former special air service trooper, boasts that he pushes celebrities like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet "beyond their limits." Tasks they have been given include eating mice, jumping out of planes and crossing desert canyons - activities that the Secret Service would not normally allow the president to tackle.

His appearance on the show, which will air later this year, is just the latest in a series of White House efforts to reach new audiences.

Obama has called global warming "one of the greatest challenges we face this century."

"What's happening in Alaska is happening to us," Obama said before leaving Washington.

"It's our wakeup call. And as long as I'm president, America will lead the world to meet the threat of climate change before it's too late."

Obama has just imposed, much to the chagrin of his Republican opponents in Congress, strict standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

America is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and has committed to a reduction of 26-28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 compared to 2005.

Alaska is often just a fuel stop for US presidents headed for Asia. But Obama will spend three days in The Last Frontier and become the first sitting US president to visit the Alaskan Arctic.

Many in Alaska, which became America's 49th state in 1959, fear Obama has forgotten the economic difficulties they face.

His visit comes as lowered oil prices have eaten into Alaska's earnings. The Standard & Poor's ratings agency this month lowered Alaska's credit rating from "stable" to "negative."

Governor Bill Walker has warned that he has a clear message for Obama.

"We have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except that it is three-quarters empty," Walker said last week. "So I'll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline."

Republican Congressman Don Young, who supports the expansion of drilling areas, also voiced his concern.

"We are not just a fancy photo on a postcard or a green screen backdrop for the anti-resource development agenda; we are a unique and diverse people that rely upon our lands and our resources to survive," he wrote in an opinion piece in the Alaska Dispatch News.

And the Alaska Oil and Gas Association called on Obama to "strike a reasonable balance" and reminded him that the oil and gas sector accounted for 110,000 jobs. Only about 737,000 people live in Alaska.

Finding a satisfactory balance seems unlikely, as environmental protection groups also make noise.

They are furious the Obama administration gave the green light to Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska.

"If Obama is going to be the climate change leader the world needs, he must revoke Shell's permits to drill in the Chukchi Sea," said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Centre for Biological Diversity.

"The mixed signals that Obama is sending with his energy and climate policies are truly baffling," she added.