Submerged countries, abandoned cities and hordes of refugees from low-lying areas await the world barring urgent action on climate change, President Barack Obama warned Monday, painting a doomsday scenario as he opened a historic visit to Alaska.
Evoking ominous consequences, Obama said that left unchecked, climate change would soon trigger global conflict and "condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair."
"It's already changing the way Alaskans live," Obama said.
In the Arctic, which is warming faster than any other corner of the globe, Obama said melting permafrost and disintegrating sea ice present the risk of floods, fires and unimaginable economic damage. "The science is stark, it is sharpening, and it proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present," he said.
Despite his call to action, Obama's arrival Monday was met with scorn from environmentalists. The president spent part of his seven-hour flight to Alaska talking with Alaska's Gov. Bill Walker, who said he thanked Obama for a recent decision to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill in the Chukchi Sea.
A small group of protesters outside the Arctic summit felt otherwise, shouting "Shell no!" and waving skulls made to look like the company's logo.
As he traverses Alaska this week, Obama has two audiences in mind: Alaskans, who are hungry for more energy development to boost the state's sagging oil revenues, and the broader public, whose focus Obama hopes to concentrate on the need for drastic action to combat global warming, including a climate treaty that Obama hopes will help solidify his environmental legacy.
Whether Obama can successfully navigate those two competing interests — energy and the environment — is the prevailing question of his trip.
The president has struggled to explain how his dire warnings and call to action to cut greenhouse gases square with other steps he's taken or allowed to expand energy production, including oil and gas. Environmental groups took particular offense at the administration's move to allow expanded drilling off Alaska's northwest coast — just a few weeks before coming to Alaska to preach on climate change.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters traveling with the president that Obama's all-of-the-above approach to energy aims to facilitate the longer-term transition to cleaner, renewable fuels. "Alaska is a place where that approach is on display," Earnest said.
Even Alaska Natives, who have echoed Obama's warnings about environmental changes, have urged him to allow more oil and gas to be sucked out of Alaska's soil and waters. Alaska faces a roughly $3.5 billion deficit this year as a result of falling oil prices, forcing state budget cuts that have wreaked havoc on rural services.
"History has shown us that the responsible energy development which is the lifeblood of our economy can exist in tandem with, and significantly enhance, our traditional way of life," leaders of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which represents Inupiat Eskimo shareholders, wrote Monday in a letter to Obama.
Following his speech Monday night, Obama was to board a U.S. Coast Guard cutter on Tuesday to tour Kenai Fjords National Park and to hike to Exit Glacier, a sprawling expanse of ice that is retreating amid warming temperatures. In southwest Alaska on Wednesday, Obama will meet with fishermen locked in conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world's largest salmon fishery.
Al Jazeera and wire services