Obama’s Trip to Alaska

Talking Climate Change to Preserve the System That’s Destroying the Planet

by Orpheus Reed | September 7, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Thwaites glacier in West Antarctic

Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Studies show that part of the huge West Antarctic ice sheet is starting a slow collapse in an unstoppable way. Photo: AP


This week, President Barack Obama went to Alaska with a stated purpose of highlighting the dangers of climate change. Obama visited melting glaciers, an indigenous village along the Arctic coast, and met with fishermen, all to create public opinion for the U.S. agenda on climate change.

Before getting into what Obama’s trip was actually aimed at accomplishing, let’s review the emergency situation: The last two months have been the warmest worldwide since records began being kept in 1880. In many cases, records are not being slightly exceeded but smashed. Unprecedented wildfires of enormous ferocity and scope have been raging throughout Western North America all summer, including in Alaska, after terrible drought and lack of snowfall this past winter. Around the world heat waves have interacted with other factors arising from imperialist oppression of poor countries, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of people. Salmon are dying in Western rivers from waters too warm to swim in. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting with growing rapidity. Some ice sheets, such as the West Antarctic sheet, are already locked in a death spiral of slow collapse, past the point of no return. The oceans are being drained of life, disrupted, warmed, and chemically altered in ways that could lead to the end of much of life.

Scientific studies follow one after the other citing the enormous damage occurring to the planet and its species. They warn that the changes occurring now can lead to the unraveling of world ecosystems for millennia to come. All of this is pointing to huge transformations right now and to the likelihood of impending leaps into zones of catastrophe never experienced in recorded history. All of this is due to the very system of capitalism-imperialism Obama heads and fronts for, and its utterly rapacious drive for competitive profitability—clashing with other world powers driven by the same factors.

A System With NO Answers

Given all this, did Obama announce that his government would immediately move away from drilling for oil and natural gas, of which the U.S. under Obama has become the world’s leading producer? Did he say that we must urgently transition without pause to green energy sources and that all U.S. coal would be left in the ground? Did he rescind his plans to open the Atlantic Ocean to offshore drilling? Did he lay out a plan for combating the extinction crisis of species that the capitalist-imperialist system has caused? Did he apologize for and then cancel his decision to open the Arctic for drilling, which not only threatens oil spill devastation to one of the world’s last wilderness oceans but which scientists have said is entirely incompatible with averting climate disaster? No on every single count.

In Anchorage, Obama spoke at an international conference on the Arctic. He cited changes going on in Alaska due to climate change and how these and other events worldwide demonstrate that this is not a far-off problem but one “happening now.” Obama said: “We’re not acting fast enough” on climate change, and that “the United States recognizes our role in creating the problem and we embrace our responsibility to help solve it.”

Obama’s comments were played in the press as “an urgent message.” The truth is his comments hardly begin to capture either the urgency or the out-of-control character of the climate crisis, not to mention the overall environmental emergency, (which he didn’t even touch on). Both he and a  White House briefing talked about how climate change is disrupting the lives of Americans, with no mention of how climate change threatens impending catastrophe, especially to the billions of people living in the poorest countries. Obama’s message amounted to using the people of Alaska and its increasingly eroded, but still magnificent, environment as a photo-op to cover over, and line people up behind, the criminal system that is the chief reason we are at a climate/environmental precipice.

What’s Driving the Race to Devastate the Arctic?

What Obama did was use this Arctic trip to appear as climate defender and aim to position the U.S. as the dominant force in upcoming climate talks in Paris, where it is looking more likely that a climate treaty with some modest limits on greenhouse emissions will be signed by world powers.

This possible treaty and all the jockeying shaping up around these talks are an important way the world capitalist powers are vying for top-dog position in the coming world of environmental devastation and massive upheaval that their system is responsible for. Obama put forward no new proposals for dealing with climate change during his Alaska trip. He simply reiterated his plan to cut U.S. emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and to cut U.S. power plant emissions 32 percent by 2030. As we’ve written, these proposals are puny compared to the level of cuts demanded by the reality of the climate crisis. They are based on phony calculations that cover over the real amount of emissions for which the U.S. is responsible when taking into account its offloading of carbon pollution to production in other countries, and those emissions caused by the U.S. military, whose emissions are entirely “off the books.” Obama’s proposed cuts are consistent with the interests of continuing U.S. capitalist domination of the planet’s economy. In fact, Obama’s whole proposal and positioning around the upcoming Paris conference stem from a logic of how best to preserve U.S. economic and strategic interests and domination in the world in the face of rapidly accelerating environmental devastation that will affect everything.

Obama is speaking for a section of the U.S. ruling class that recognizes at least some of the real disruptions facing the planet, and is interested in how to try to “manage” this crisis the best way possible to guarantee the U.S. will remain on top. This crisis cannot be “managed.” It cannot be stuffed into a neat box tied up in the string of U.S. capitalist interests. The environmental crisis is a threat to the entire world and humanity’s entire future, and it is raging. It needs to be tackled straight up with huge and radical transformations starting immediately. But whatever moves this system makes, it has no answers and can’t make the radical changes needed.

And U.S. interests are up against intense and growing challenges from rivals. One important way this is shaping up is  over who is going to plunder the Arctic and “cash in” or be left behind on “opportunities,” as capitalism-imperialism sees things, created there by climate change.

This is not just about economic competition. The projection of military power—while not yet to the point of direct conflict—is a growing aspect of competition between the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia, and Denmark, and others like China, which are trying to find a way in. A presidential directive put in place by George W. Bush, and continued under Obama, outlines a strategy requiring the United States “to assert a more active and influential national presence to protect its Arctic interests and to project sea power throughout the region.” A strategic paper from the CNA Military Advisory Board said climate change was a threat to U.S. “national power” and advocated that the U.S. needs to step up its ability to project military power in the Arctic as it melts. (See “Climate Change and U.S. Global Supremacy.”)

Hundreds of kayaktivists take to the water during a protest against drilling in the Arctic and the Port of Seattle being used as a port for the Shell Oil drilling rig Polar Pioneer, May 16, 2015, in Seattle. (AP photo)
Hundreds of kayaktivists take to the water in Seattle during a protest against drilling in the Arctic, and against the Port of Seattle being used by the Shell Oil drilling rig, Polar Pioneer (in background). May 16, 2015. (AP photo)

Protest at Port of Seattle, May 18.
Protest at Port of Seattle, May 18. (AP photo)

In fact, one of Obama’s few new proposals in Alaska is to build more U.S. icebreakers to enhance the ability of the U.S. to extend power in the strategically important Arctic region.

Obama also said it is consistent to address climate change in a meaningful way to save the planet, and for the world’s economies to continue to grow (meaning grow in the market-driven way they have been, not based on the needs of humanity and the environment). His evidence for this? World economies grew this past year but carbon emissions reportedly did not grow for the first time in at least decades. This slight, one-year flattening of carbon emissions is light-years away from what the situation demands: massive cuts in carbon emissions, moves to stop wrenching oil, gas, and coal from the earth and seas, and an end to deforestation. The nature of the problem is immediate and daunting. For instance, recent scientific reports say even if emissions were stopped immediately, the oceans would continue to warm for centuries because of the heat they have already sucked out of the atmosphere.

But Obama, even as an “enlightened” imperialist, still cannot come close to being able to face up to, not to mention really deal with, this emergency. And even if he really wanted to, this system and its deeper modes of operation would preclude this.

Whatever agreements get made will be shaped and limited by the interests of the capitalist powers who are all seeking to get a leg up on each other. Further, imperialist promises and agreements are one thing, following through with them is another matter. Given the system’s endless drive for profitability and growth, the intense rivalries between all the competitive powers and extremely sharp differences among even the ruling class forces in the U.S., it is quite unlikely that they would be able to follow through with any agreements that are made, if they make them.

All this highlights the importance of people struggling to STOP capitalism-imperialism from destroying the planet.


Special Issue of Revolution on the Environmental Emergency

This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and Earth’s ecosystems. In this issue we show:

  • the dimensions of the emergency...
  • the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
  • a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.

Read online....

Also available in brochure format (downloadable PDF)







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