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Mr. Obama’s Urgent Arctic Message

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Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 23.33.36By THE EDITORIAL BOARD SEPT. 1, 2015

A version of this editorial appears in print on September 2, 2015, on page A24 of the New York edition

A presidential trip has enormous power to focus attention on a place and an issue, and President Obama’s trip to Alaska has been minutely choreographed with visits to glaciers, threatened Inuit villages and the like to provide a stunning and alarming context to his message on the urgent need to address climate change.

Four times in a 24-minute speech in Anchorage he declared that “we’re not acting fast enough,” a message especially true in the countdown to December’s United Nations climate conference in Paris. This will be the most ambitious effort by the world’s nations to produce an equitable deal on reducing greenhouse gases, and the United States, as the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon gases (after China), must be at the forefront of the effort.

Alaska is the president’s last stop on a late-summer climate change tour designed to enhance his record on the issue as well as America’s leadership position and its leverage at the Paris talks. At a conference in Las Vegas, he threw his weight behind the solar energy industry and unveiled initiatives aimed at increasing energy efficiency. In New Orleans, on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he spoke of the need to make coastal cities more resilient as they face the rising seas and stronger storms that a warming planet is likely to bring.

Mr. Obama’s theatrical visit to Arctic Alaska, the first by a sitting American president, reinforced these themes. In no state are the effects of climate change more visible. Yet the trip also had the effect of highlighting other forces that to one degree or another complicate the environmental agenda he would like to be his central focus.

One is the fundamental conflict between the need to reduce greenhouse gases and the imperatives of economic development. If Alaska is unusually vulnerable to climate change — the Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the globe — it is also among the most economically dependent on natural resources, notably oil. The precipitous drop in oil prices has severely affected Alaskans, many of whom are opposed to any cutback in drilling.

This conflict has been thrust to the forefront of Mr. Obama’s visit by the administration’s approval last month of Shell Oil’s plans to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast. Shell’s permit to drill could not be easily denied, given that the company acquired the lease for more than $2 billion in 2008. The administration has also imposed extensive safeguards against oil spills. But the decision was roundly criticized by environmental groups and could not help but cast a shadow on Mr. Obama’s message.

Then there are the major economic and security issues raised by the retreat of Arctic sea ice and the opportunities this has created for mineral exploration, shipping and fishing. Russia, which controls by far the longest stretch of Arctic coast, has actively expanded its military presence in the far north, while American forces in Alaska have been drawn down. On this trip, Mr. Obama is calling for more icebreakers for Arctic service to add to the two the Coast Guard now has. Russia already has about 40 icebreakers, with 11 more in the works.

Mr. Obama is right to focus his powerful presidential spotlight on climate change, an enormous threat to the planet and one requiring an urgent and ambitious response. Given the foolish skepticism about climate change among many leading politicians and parts of the American public, and the resistance among Republicans to Mr. Obama’s bold efforts to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, it is important for the president to drive home the reality of what is happening to our planet. But it is also good that this voyage is drawing attention to the other challenges of the thawing Arctic, including the fact that the same greenhouse gases that are raising temperatures are also opening access to vast deposits of fossil fuels.

These issues cannot be compartmentalized. Combating carbon emissions is the priority, but it is also imperative that the United States and other Arctic nations reach negotiated agreements on how to handle the challenge of the melting ice before it turns into a new Cold War.

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