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Obama’s ‘Fifth Business’ in Alaska

In the 1970 novel by Robertson Davies, “Fifth Business,” the book’s title refers to a theatrical role that is not hero, heroine or protagonist, but essential to bringing about the finale, when all matters are explained or resolved.

Now that the dust has settled and the vapor trails of Air Force One fade in memory, Alaskans wonder if Alaska was the beautiful stagecraft in Barack Obama’s global warming tableau, or merely fifth business to move his theatrical opus toward its inevitable conclusion.

{mosads}Like our brief summer, Obama’s presidency is fading fast. Political observers describe his trip to Alaska as a notch in his belt, a territorial marking, if you will, as he builds his legacy on climate change. He is the first sitting president to venture above the Arctic Circle. Alaska critics say he was using Alaska as a backdrop for his anti-oil agenda.

Perhaps. Obama visited fish-rich Dillingham in the Bristol Bay region. He did not, although he could have, fly over the mineral-rich area 90 miles away, where a mine known as Pebble was stopped in its tracks by the EPA long before it could even apply for a permit, (even though it is on state land set aside for mining).

He visited our Arctic community of Kotzebue, where he was warmly received by the largely Native population, and participated in joyful dancing and speechmaking.  He flew over Kivalina, the tiny village built on a speck of a gravel bar that is slowly-but-surely being reclaimed by the Bering Sea. Kivalina was originally a seasonal whaling stopover; a permanent settlement is a recent phenomenon that began with a ill-conceived federal school built there in 1905.

The president did not, although he could have, visit the oil-producing areas that keep Alaska on solid footing, providing most of the private sector jobs. He did not fly over the Shell drilling rig that has recently begun exploring anew in the Chukchi Sea. That area may hold more oil than all of Prudhoe Bay combined.

He did not visit our Healy coal fields, to see one of our largest exports that supplies six Alaska power plants and sends coal to Chile, South Korea, and other nations in the Pacific. Nor did he see our Trans Alaska Pipeline, which has moved 17 billion barrels of oil.

While he spoke to a group of handpicked environmentalists and tribal leaders and a attended a secret dinner with unknown guests at the home of Alice Rogoff, Alaska’s media tycoon, he did not spend time with the truck drivers, the rig operators, the tradesmen and engineers and who make this northern economy work.

As a resource state, Alaskans are bullish on good-paying blue collar jobs and we value STEM – science, technology, engineering and math trades — because we are a province of exploration and resource extraction. We are not a state that can exist on tourism alone.

Obama’s trip was purely political theater, including a reality TV episode with Bear Grylls, as they hiked together in the “wilderness” to a glacier (on a trail specifically designed for wheelchair access.) All interactions were carefully choreographed toward one conclusion: Alaska is doomed because of climate change.

Alaskans do have concerns about our rapidly changing planet. But, unlike the president, we are not overwrought about it.  Although many of us live along the coastline of Alaska, in raw numbers, we are a fraction of the population that lives along the Eastern Seaboard, the Gulf Coast, and the West Coast.  According to NOAA, 130 million Americans live in counties touching those coastlines, 39 percent of the nation’s population, in fact.

There’s another inconvenient fact that only geologists much ponder, which is that Alaska is actually gaining land every year at a very rapid rate; in some places the land is rising three inches a year. Isostatic rebound of the compressed land from the Ice Age is so rapid along much of our coastline that landowners have to have their boundaries surveyed every time a property changes hands.

I raise this arcane fact to point out that the doomsday scenario painted by Obama is just one way of looking at the changing climate in Alaska.  There are other ways. Humans adapt, and we Alaskans – like all on Planet Earth — must continue to find ways to accommodate what is likely to be a forever-changing climate.

As for Obama’s Alaskan adventure, many of us were worried his visit would serve to reinforce his gloomy narrative, and he did not disappoint our expectations: He came in and left like a Greenpeace activist, before returning to his home to welcome the arrival of a Saudi king. He’ll zip off to a Paris climate change conference this fall, where he will no-doubt rail against the developed world’s economy, whilst ignoring the reality that developing countries only want the conveniences and technologies enjoyed by the rest of us – and they will continue to strive for them, regardless of how many greenhouse gases must be emitted.

Yes, Obama stayed in his echo chamber, even in Alaska, hearing the voices that reinforced his own apocalyptic view of the world. What he described as impending doom, we Alaskans experience as a set of problems in search of great solutions.   


McQueary, vice chair of the Alaska Republican Party, is the chief financial operator for the Alaska scientific and mapping firm, E-Terra, which uses satellite and computer-aided technology to provide data to government and business sectors.

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