Wednesday 13 December 2017

Obama visits Arctic Circle as battle for control of region heats up

Bear Grylls with US President Barack Obama. He will be filming with Courteney Cox in Ireland this week
Bear Grylls with US President Barack Obama. He will be filming with Courteney Cox in Ireland this week

Ruth Sherlock in Washington

Barack Obama was set to become the first sitting American president to visit the Arctic Circle last night, as the United States battles to assert itself in a global race to control the region's natural resources.

Melting of the ice cap, caused by rising global temperatures, has made the once impenetrable Arctic Circle increasingly accessible, sparking intense competition between Russia, the US and China to assert control over an area that it is thought may hold as much as 40pc of the world's oil and gas resources.

During a three-day visit to Alaska, which has been primarily billed as a trip to highlight the urgency of Mr Obama's ambitious climate change agenda, the president proposed speeding up the acquisition and building of new coast guard icebreaker ships to help secure year-round access to the nation's polar regions.

"These heavy icebreakers will ensure that the United States can meet our national interests, protect and manage our natural resources, and strengthen our international, state, local and tribal relationships," the White House said. The US coast guard fleet is antiquated, and reportedly has only two fully functional icebreakers, while Russia is said to have 40 of the vessels, with another 11 planned or under construction.

Russia has been rapidly expanding its influence in the Arctic, earmarking €3.8bn for Arctic development over the next five years in an ambitious military and industrial programme that is being overseen by Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.

Last March Mr Putin ordered a full combat military exercise in the area, involving 40,000 Russian troops and dozens of warships and submarines.

Russia's focus on the Arctic has highlighted the challenges of reconciling climate policies with economic necessity.

Mr Obama's visit to Alaska is also part of what he hopes will be a legacy-defining mission to cut American greenhouse emissions by almost a third.

Images of melting permafrost and rising sea levels that are now forcing thousands of people to abandon their coastal homes are intended to drive home the urgency of Mr Obama's ambitious policies to tackle global warming.

During the three-day trip, the president has used a mix of traditional politicking and celebrity television to get his message across. On Tuesday, the president spent the day with Bear Grylls, filming an episode of the British survival expert's programme 'Running Wild' in which the pair hiked the melting Exit Glacier.

But Mr Obama has been accused of hypocrisy by green campaigners for using Alaska to elevate his climate agenda, while only last month giving the final permission for Shell to begin exploratory drilling for oil. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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