What is Obama’s Arctic Legacy?

By Richard Clifford
President Obama looking at the effects of climate change on Bear Glacier, Alaska. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close after almost 8 years in the White House, attention turns to the legacy he will leave. As the first African American President of the United States of America, Obama’s position in history is already secure; however, it is an exceptional legacy based in policy that he has sought to leave. For the last 18-24 months, this has entailed a focus on the environment. With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt and his establishment of National Parks a century ago, or perhaps Jimmy Carter and his drive for energy efficiency, there is no US President who has had a real stand out environmental legacy. It is in this regard that Obama achieved another first in 2015, becoming the first sitting US President to travel north of the Arctic Circle. Over his time in office, the Arctic presented Obama with a range of economic, defence and environmental issues that warranted greater attention. The legacy that the Obama Administration leaves in the region is bound inextricably to his wider achievements in countering climate change, given the large overlap between the two. There remains much for the next President to do to tackle climate change and to mitigate its effects in the Arctic, but to dimiss Obama’s efforts would be unfair, given the notable achievements and progress he has made. By the end of his term, Obama would have had a positive legacy on the Arctic and the environment, even if it is incomplete.

Addressing Climate Change

The Arctic is very much ground zero for climate change, with its impacts already affecting the everyday lives of Americans. Alaska has warmed 1.7ºC over the last 60 years; in 2016, it experienced its warmest February and second-warmest winter on record, with only the winter of 2000-01 having a higher statewide average.(1) According to the database of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, February 2016 had an average statewide temperature of 17.2 degrees, much higher than the 20th-century average of 4.8 degrees. Furthermore, data from the National Weather Service revealed that Barrow, the northernmost point of the United States, had an average temperature of -4.1 degrees that month, 10.1 degrees warmer than the long-term average for February.(2) Current projections show the Arctic to be warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Rising temperatures have clearly affected the Arctic’s ecosystems, with huge implications for the local population. Caribou populations have reportedly dropped by 5o%, which is a major blow for communities that rely on hunting – both economically and culturally.(3) Thawing permafrost caused by the rising temperature has led to saltwater encroachment and sewage contamination, both of which threaten supplies of drinking water. In addition, the first climate refugees have been created in the region as the changing climate drove the population of Newtok, Alaska, in 2015 to relocate their town.

Protecting the Arctic requires counteracting and mitigating climate change; and under Obama’s leadership, this climate agenda has been advanced, with meaningful progress made on a number of initiatives and comprehensive strategies developed to deal with climate change in the long term. On 19 March 2015, President Obama issued an Executive Order that would cut the Federal Government’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40% from 2008 levels over the next decade, amounting to savings of $18 billion in avoided energy costs for taxpayers. The same Executive Order would also increase the share of electricity from renewable sources the Federal Government consumes to 30%.(4) Moreover, investment has been made on an unprecedented scale in clean energy technologies. Internationally, Obama has negotiated an agreement with China whereby both countries will reduce their greenhouse gas output. While China has pledged to cap its emissions for the first time, the US has promised to reduce its emissions to 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.(5) The Administration’s crowning achievement on the environment – the Paris Agreement in 2015 – witnessed 178 signatories agreeing to limit temperature increase to under 2ºC. One caveat, however, is that Obama accomplished this through presidential prerogative, rather than endorsement through Congress. Therefore, Obama’s climate legacy will depend largely on his successor continuing his work; and it could be overturned, were the successor to follow a different course of action. Nonetheless, in terms of wider environmental policy, the Obama Administration has done much to mitigate climate change both domestically and globally.

Addressing Economic and Energy Security

Obama is clearly aware of the causes and consequences of climate change in the Arctic, and the dangers of risky Arctic exploration or oil extraction projects. However, there are both economic and energy security pressures that encourage oil drilling and exploration in the region. This has led to a conflict in policy for Obama, in seeking to advance both his environmental agenda, whilst also cautiously favouring Arctic oil exploration. Despite the clear impact of climate change on the Arctic, and disastrous consequences of an oil spill, the economic benefits of fossil fuel extraction remain attractive to Arctic residents and to many in the lower 48 states. By April 2016, CNBC reported that Alaska’s $3.5 billion deficit, which translated as around two-thirds of its budget, read “like a classic boom-bust tale”, with the collapose in crude prices and lower oil revenues taking its toll on the Alaskan economy.(6) The Alaskan economy is seen by many to be facing its first recession in decades and remains dependent on fossil fuels for many of its jobs. Over a third of Alaska’s jobs are reportedly tied to the oil and gas industry, with the petroleum industry providing 110,000 jobs statewide. In fact, even though Alaskans are those most at threat from climate change, they benefit significantly from the energy industry. 90% of Alaskan state revenue comes from taxes on oil and gas pipelines, making it by far the single most important contributor to the local economy.(7) Many of Obama’s political opponents favour granting more leases to oil exploration companies within the Arctic, and he is frequently derided by many in the Republican Party for not opening the region to more safe exploration. Indeed, in 2015, Governor Walker of Alaska criticised Obama for not “putt[ing] more oil in the pipeline” in Alaska even when it was three-quarters empty. Likewise, he lamented that Obama and the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell were “declaring war on Alaska’s future” by seeking through Congress to declare a vast expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, thereby restricting exploration.(8)

Perhaps the argument for drilling that has proved most pertinent to Obama is the need for the US to establish energy security. This has been a factor in both his presidential campaigns favouring the establishment of energy security, and he has cautiously supported drilling in the Arctic. The reasoning for such an interest developing in the region is clear, as it is predicted that the Arctic has a significant amount of undiscovered energy resources. The United States Geological Survey suggests it contains 30% of the world’s remaining undiscovered resources, with the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas holding an estimated 23.6 billion barrels of conventionally- recoverable oil.(9) Pro-Arctic drilling arguments have, at times, led to a duality in Obama’s policy within the region, balancing energy security pressures against environmental concerns. This was made very clear in 2015 when Obama approved Arctic exploration for Royal Dutch Shell in a move environmentalist darling and Democratic heavy-hitter Al Gore described as ‘insane’.(10) The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management predicted a 75% chance of one or more large spills occurring, while Greenpeace cited failed coast guard inspections on Shell rigs as a reason to withdraw the permission.(11) The Obama Administration responded by citing energy security as the reason for allowing the exploration, which had to be pursued as a matter of national security. This decision was greeted with extreme anger, with climate activist Bill McKibben stating that it is ‘odd to first hand Shell a shovel and then go for a visit’ in an interview with Slate.(12)

A Delicate Balance? 

Obama eventually reversed course on his decision and rescinded the permission for exploration that had been granted to Royal Dutch Shell. Further steps back from Arctic drilling have been taken, with the US Administration blocking Arctic drilling for 2 years from 2016 and also rejecting the extension of other existing leases granted by the Bush Administration. In July 2016, the Administration established new safety rules tailored to protect the Arctic environment in the event of future exploration. The new rules require oil companies to develop responses to oil spills, have available technology to cap spills if they occur, and have the ability to report and respond to ice conditions. These rules have attracted mixed reviews from environmentalists happy that precautions are being taken, yet disappointed that drilling has not been completely ruled out. Despite a 2-year ban on Arctic drilling, including the cancellation of leases in Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2016 and 2017, it appears, from an early Department of the Interior draft, that the Arctic will be included in the 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Program, and leases will be granted in Cook Inlet, Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell suggested that there will indeed be drilling in the Arctic; however, this will occur near the end of the lease, so as to thoroughly evaluate the safety.

Despite potential future drilling, President Obama has made progress in protecting areas of the Arctic. This is particularly evident in the case of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is believed to host the most diverse array of wildlife in all of the Arctic.(13) The region is home to the Porcupine caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, grey wolves, foxes and muskoxen; and bird species from the Coastal Plain are known to migrate to all 50 states of the US. Yet, much of the region – including the Coastal Plain – is not protected as wilderness, and the region has faced similar pressures to open up to oil drilling, which a source at the White House regards as “a move that could irreparably damage this ecological treasure and harm the Alaska Native communities who still depend on the caribou for subsistence.”(14) In January 2015, the Department of the Interior put forward a revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan to better sustain and manage the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but the expanded protections it proposed were met with scorn by Republicans placing greater weight on energy issues. In April 2015, President Obama went further and asked the Republican-led Congress to block an additional 12 million acres of the refuge from oil and gas drilling by designating the Coastal Plain and other core areas of the refuge as wilderness; this would bring the total protected wilderness area in the refuge to 20 million acres.(15)

While this move was lauded by several environmental groups, it was lambasted by Alaska’s senior Senator Lisa Murkowski, Head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who vowed to fight and block the Administration’s efforts to unilaterally “impose new restrictions on Alaska’s land and resources” by advancing the new wilderness designation, despite bipartisan opposition from Alaska’s leaders. “The vast majority of Alaskans do not support creating new wilderness in ANWR, so I am disappointed to see the Obama administration is continuing to press the issue”. Murkowski, who has introduced legislation permitting oil production in the refuge, stated, “A Congressional designation of the Coastal plain as wilderness will not happen on my watch.”(16) Likewise, the junior Senator for Alaska, Dan Sullivan, criticised Obama’s “goal of starving the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and turning our state into a giant national park”, and warned that the proposal would “undermine Alaska’s future and America’s energy security”.(17) Nevertheless, Obama has found a kindred spirit in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In 2016, both pledged to further protect areas of the Arctic from drilling and overfishing, committing to protect at least 17% of the Arctic land mass and 10% of Arctic marine areas by 2020.(18) Such efforts may not constitute the official designation of wilderness that environmentalists want; however, such a designation can only come from Congress. Given that Congress in recent years has been slow to use its power to create wilderness zones, Obama’s best course of action has been to utilise alternative means to achieve the desired results. Both Obama and Trudeau have committed to meet later this year and to possibly expand these targets, looking to protect more of the Arctic area from exploration. 

International Cooperation with other Arctic States

In addition, the Obama Administration has frequently looked to work in conjunction and cooperation with other Arctic states on issues that affect the region, as shown during the GLACIER Conference (Conference on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement & Resilience) in August 2015. Similarly, while chairing the Arctic Council since 2015, the US propounded three main thematic focuses – improving economic and living conditions for indigenous Arctic communities, promoting Arctic Ocean safety and stewardship, and addressing the impact of climate change. Advancing these agendas within the Arctic Council has highlighted the Obama Administration’s commitment to working to advance mutual cooperation within the Arctic, despite geopolitical developments elsewhere. The inaugural White House Arctic Science Ministerial, scheduled for 28 September 2016, provides another example of the Obama Administration’s efforts to enhance global cooperation by “advanc[ing] promising, near-term science initiatives and creat[ing] a context for increased international scientific collaboration on the Arctic over the long term”.(19) This meeting will include high-level officials, science ministers and scientific advisors not only from the Arctic but also across the globe. The event, scheduled for the first anniversary of Obama’s Arctic visit, looks to enhance understanding and cooperation over climate issues in the Arctic. The primary focus will be to secure greater cooperation on data gathering and sharing, whilst also looking to increase integration between states and community-based projects. Furthermore, efforts will be made to fully utilise the knowledge of indigenous people, whilst also looking to build their resilience to climate change and develop joint strategies that build resilience to future threats.

Approach to Arctic Security Concerns

Obama has also been confronted by the growing security debate in the Arctic. Russian military build-up in the region, including the renovation of 10 Soviet-era bases, has caused some alarm within the military, who believe that there is a chance that America could ‘lose’ the Arctic. Obama has decided to opt for diplomacy and cooperation on Arctic security matters, and has avoided pressure for increased military presence in the region. The US has focused on cutting military forces under Obama; thus, sending or reinforcing a military presence to the Arctic would have given a troubling signal to Russia, and likely sparked reciprocal action from the latter. Maintaining cooperation with Russia on soft security issues like Coast Guard cooperation is currently more valuable than exacerbating tensions in the region. This is not to say that the US military is unprepared for activities in the Arctic – for example, taking part in exercises like the IceX 2016, which was deemed to be largely successful.(20)

Obama’s Arctic legacy is, thus, predominantly positive, having advanced the climate agenda and improved cooperation in the region, while also looking to further scientific collaboration with the Arctic Science Ministerial this September. Obama has avoided falling into the trap of prematurely militarising the region in favour of continued engagement, cooperation and diplomacy with Russia. Much of Obama’s progress, however, relies on his successor advancing the same or similar policies.

Richard Clifford is an Associate in the Geopolitics and Security Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. He is completing an MSc in Defence, Development and Diplomacy at Durham University and has an undergraduate degree in History and International Relations from the London School of Economics.
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