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Je Suis Frostpaw

Steven T. Jones photo
Steven T. JonesAnchorage and Seward, Alaska
Je Suis Frostpaw
Watching President Obama’s climate dance in Alaska from a well-traveled polar bear costume

President Obama was on his way and I was ready, costumed as a polar bear named Frostpaw. Across the road from Seward Airport, hundreds of us gathered to watch the president pass and maybe catch his eye as the motorcade took him to tour the melting Exit Glacier, his latest stop on a visit to Alaska that the White House decided to make all about climate change.

Global warming was a particularly poignant issue for me and my new alter-ego. Frostpaw (with many of my fine colleagues inside the suit) had been dogging Obama around the country for the last couple of years – from Hawaii to Martha’s Vineyard to the front walk of the White House – urging him to take stronger, quicker action on climate change. And now, I was inside the bear that the Alaska Dispatch News called “unnervingly realistic,” reminding the president of the high cost of Arctic oil drilling and continued overreliance on fossil fuels. 

Obama issued an eloquent, urgent call to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in his speech to an international conference the day before in Anchorage: “This is within our power. This is a solvable problem if we act now.” It’s a welcome new emphasis, but his actions don’t match his words, as climate activists have been saying for months, focusing especially on his recent approval of Shell’s dangerous offshore drilling project in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea.

The last time I’d seen Obama in person, I was in a different role: a newspaper journalist occasionally covering his presidential campaign. When I covered Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention at Mile High Stadium in Denver in 2008, “clean coal” was still part of his platform, a phrase that has since left his lexicon. Now that he’s thinking about his post-presidential legacy in a rapidly warming world, Obama has been cracking down on coal-fired power plants (though still not hard enough) and offering soaring rhetoric on climate change.

I’m wearing a different hat now – or rather, a different head. Frostpaw was created by the Center for Biological Diversity, which successfully petitioned the federal government to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, even though it fell short of extending that protection to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, which have helped melt enough polar ice to put polar bears on the path to extinction by the end of the century, in the process allowing oil companies to more easily drill into the massive carbon bomb of oil that lies under Arctic seas.

When you’re inside the bear suit, it’s hard to see out of Frostpaw’s head. I looked through white plastic mesh out of his neck, shrouded in white fur along the edges. For photos – and over the two days that I wore the Frostpaw costume in Alaska, I posed with people for hundreds of photos – the trick is to look down at the ground, so that Frostpaw is looking at the camera. Almost everyone that I talked to was looking over my sweaty head and into Frostpaw’s eyes.

Kids love Frostpaw. In Alaska, I came to see that as one of the costume’s greatest benefits, the role of the icebreaker. Families come to see the presidential motorcade drive past, usually waiting for an hour or more just to catch a glimpse of the presidential caravan -- an interminable amount of time for a small child. But as Disney proved, kids adore oversized animal costumes, particularly when the people inside are willing to do some free impromptu babysitting, even if for just a few minutes.

So as we waited for Obama to arrive in Seward, Frostpaw developed an entourage of children and grateful parents. I high-fived the kids, and they couldn’t get enough of slapping those big, clawed paws. If a child stared at me long enough, I’d move on to the fist-bump, exploding it into full paw as I pulled back, and then they were hooked. Forget the president, Frostpaw became the main draw for most kids in Seward and Anchorage.

It’s a big deal for the president of the United States to land in a small town like Seward. It’s an even bigger deal – from the perspective of getting Americans to finally seriously grapple with the climate crisis – that President Obama made that issue central to his visit. But then there’s this dude from San Francisco who shows up dressed as a polar bear, entertaining their children and posing for photos while wielding a sign that read:

“Dear President Obama,

Don’t spOIL my Arctic Home or your Climate Change Cred. Just say #ShellNo!

Love, Frostpaw”

And that, it turns out, was even a bigger deal -- at least it was for me and the kids.

# # #

Our journey to Seward started before sunrise. It was ridiculously early hour for me, particularly after an epic day being Frostpaw at the “Our Future! Our Climate!” rally in Anchorage and hamming it up outside the convention center where President Obama spoke to the local and foreign leaders attending GLACIER.

But I was motivated by a goal that I hadn't realized that day: I wanted President Obama to see Frostpaw in Alaska. The media coverage of Frostpaw’s visit had already been great, including a photo on the front page of that day's Alaska Post Dispatch, a preview piece in the National Review, and later a big photo in the Financial Times. And Frostpaw's image and message had been amplified by hundreds of photos people took posing with me, which they shared with friends and followers on social media.

Still, I wanted Obama to see me. I wanted him to say, "There's that polar bear again!" I wanted Frostpaw to get under the president's skin, this time with me inhabiting Frostpaw's furry skin. My mission wouldn't be accomplished until Obama saw me waving at him, reminding him of his responsibility to the polar bears, all the world's most vulnerable creatures, and people.

In Seward I worked with a crew from Alaska that had built the Polar Profiteer, a replica of Shell's Polar Pioneer drilling rig. They were young, resourceful, energetic activists from Greenpeace, Alaska Rising Tide, and other environmental groups, and they were happy to have Frostpaw along for the day.

We rode in a minivan pulling the Polar Profiteer on a trailer, getting to know each other and marveling at Alaska's awe-inspiring beauty (particularly for Kurtis, a Greenpeace activist from Seattle, and me – the only two who weren't from Alaska). Kurtis saw some spouting Beluga whales along the way, giddy that he'd now realized both his personal goals for the trip after seeing the Northern Lights the night before.

Our plan was fluid and we had left Anchorage a little later than we'd hoped, so we talked strategies during the two-and-a-half-hour drive. The group had good intel from comrades within the ranks of those working on the president's visit, and the last we heard Obama would be landing at Seward Airport around 10 a.m.

Would that be enough time to set up the Polar Profiteer along the president's route? Would the cops and Secret Service even let us erect a platform on 12 oil barrels painted gold? Hmm, seemed doubtful, plus we were running late.

Eventually, after a conversation that included input from everyone, it was decided that they would quickly drop off me, the large suitcase that contained Frostpaw's costume, Danielle (an Alaska activist who happened to be seven months pregnant), and a large yellow banner reading: "Shell Drills, Oil Spills. 75% Change of Arctic Spill" near the airport. Then they would go to the Seward home of another activist, Bria, to drop off eight of the oil barrels and turn the platform of the Polar Profiteer into a mobile protest vehicle complete with anti-Shell signs.

There were a few hundred people waiting by the roadside when Danielle and I got dropped off, and the scene seemed a bit chaotic. We tried to stay out of the road as we headed for a spot to get ready, but a middle-aged woman yelled at us to stay off her property, which bore a large sign thanking President Obama for approving the Shell project. "Get out of here!" her friend added venomously as we shuffled away.

That turned out to be the most hostility that I experienced my entire five days in Alaska, and I think it was partly out of frustration that more of her Alaska neighbors didn't seem to share her overt support for opening the Arctic up to dangerous new offshore drilling projects. But in the moment, I didn't have time for such reflections because the president could be arriving at any moment and I still needed to suit up.

# # #

It feels weird to wear the mask of a protester. For the last 24 years -- my entire professional life -- I've been a newspaper journalist, covering the protests rather than chanting the chants. Even when I got arrested during protest that shut down San Francisco on the first day of the Iraq War in 2003, I was working as a journalist for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, holding a notebook rather than a sign.

But after the Guardian was shut down last fall, I took a communications job with the Center’s ocean program, working on issues from offshore drilling to ocean acidification, that equally evil twin of climate change. It’s an auspicious time to join the environmental movement, and I appreciate my new role in it. The world is waking up to the urgent need to address catastrophic changes that human activities are triggering in the natural world, even though the people seem to be ahead of their leaders. Even when top executives such as President Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown give passionate voice to the climate change issue, their words are belied by their timid actions and protection of business-as-usual.

But a huge and growing number of average citizens, including a surprisingly large number of people that I met in Alaska, know that this crisis requires fundamental changes in how we operate. We can’t just keep drilling and burning our way into a clean energy future. We need to make that transition, now, deliberately, even if it's difficult. That’s why I think so many Alaskans thanked me for being there and embodying Frostpaw.

Alaska's economy and its funding of public services are heavily dependent on the oil industry, but people here have recently been experiencing just how uncertain that can be. The boom times busted when oil dropped to $40 per barrel – partially because of increased oil production by the United States -- leaving Alaska with deep budget shortfalls that caused it to lay off state troopers and let some roadways deteriorate. They're worried about their future and they want jobs, but they’re also acutely aware that their glaciers are melting and sea levels are already rising to the point where some coastal villages are being relocated -- and they know there are even worse impacts on the way.

Maybe that’s why, after Obama landed and was rolling in past in his motorcade, the Alaska locals who had been waiting for hours to see the president cleared the way for Frostpaw to step toward the front of the crowd closest to President Obama. I couldn’t see him, but I have a feeling that he saw me, the polar bear that’s been chasing him for so long. 

# # #

We weren’t done yet. Our sources said President Obama would be boarding a boat in Seward Harbor that afternoon for a tour of Bear Glacier and the Kenai Fjords National Park, and none of us could resist the chance to give the president and his press entourage another look at Frostpaw and the Polar Profiteer. I was going to milk this day before catching the red-eye home later that night.

By the time we finished grabbing lunch in town and savoring our small victory that morning, our group was growing closer and more cohesive. Most of us had full-time positions with environmental organizations, but that wasn’t why we were here. This was a calling, as I learned from hearing their stories, a way to feel sane in a growth-crazed world. I was inspired and humbled as I absorbed their energy and ethos, and I knew that I was right where I needed to be in this moment.

We found a good spot in a campground on the shoreline of Resurrection Bay, where it seemed that we’d be visible to boats leaving the harbor, and our sources said President Obama would be boarding the boat in about 90 minutes. It was getting pretty windy and the only question was whether to set the Polar Pioneer up to its full 20-foot height. One strong gust and the platform might just sail into the bay or the RVs of our friendly neighbors, so we opted for a shorter version secured to the trailer.

As we set up the banners, we watched harbor patrol boats rapidly enforcing the closure of bay against wayward boaters as military helicopters circled the skies. A local cop stopped by check on us at one point, but left after confirming that we weren’t terrorists. As it approached the president’s arrival time at almost 4 p.m., I donned the Frostpaw costume and waited -- and waited.

A local journalist who had been hanging out with us told us he heard Obama was in town and left, but we decided to stick with the plan. Sure enough, we soon picked up reports from Twitter that Obama had made an unscheduled stop in town to grab an ice cream cone – darn that presidential sweet tooth!

But before long, we could see big boats moving in the harbor, starting with a large, red and white Coast Guard cutter, and followed by a smaller, green and beige sightseeing boat called the Viewfinder – the boat that carried President Obama. We were on our feet, wielding our signs, Frostpaw and I dancing on the deck of the Polar Profiteer, waving at Obama, blasting the air horn that we had just bought for the occasion.

Again, I couldn’t see Obama – but again, in the heart of Frostpaw, I was sure that he could see us. For the second time in one day, the president of the United States surveyed his subjects and saw that darn polar bear, the same one from saw in Martha’s Vineyard a couple weeks earlier, and while he was golfing in Hawaii, and during official visits to Los Angeles and New York City.

This was a historic moment. No U.S. president had ever come out so strongly on the climate change issue and made it central to a weeklong tour, as Obama had done starting at the National Clean Energy Summit in Nevada, continuing in New Orleans as he marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and now during a four-day tour of Alaska’s disappearing glaciers and coastal towns.

It was also a turning point for the environmental movement in Alaska, as my allies explained on the trip home. They had long-sought to raise the climate change issue directly and aggressively, but their organizations were wary of a backlash from Alaska residents. So a core of them formed Alaska Climate Action and organized around Obama’s visit and his Shell approval, eventually winning support from major environmental groups.

So for them, to hear Obama hammering on the climate change issue during his visit, without even trying to balance that message with an economic development subtext, it was especially gratifying, a validation of their belief that a significant number of Alaskans were ready to join the struggle for a clean energy future.

Earlier in the day, I told a journalist with the Peninsula Clarion, “We’re really happy to hear Obama focusing on climate change, we just want his actions to match his words.” Maybe, just maybe, as world leaders prepare to come together in Paris to create a global accord on climate change, we’ll start seeing the actions to match those inspiring words we heard in Alaska.  

Until then, Mr. President, watch out for polar bears.  

An update version of this story, "Being Frostpaw," was published on Medium on Nov. 19.

All publication rights reserved by Steven T. Jones. Editors interested in publishing this article can contact Steven at [email protected]

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