On 8 November former President Barack Obama spoke during the second week of the climate-change summit (COP26) in Glasgow. Much has been written on that conference, and it has been easy to overlook his remarks. The fact that he spoke for 46 minutes also means that few people here in the USA heard or read all of what he had to say. So what follows is a brief summary of his words and why they are important.
He began by noting real climate-control progress but added, “We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis.” Such an analysis was typical of this rational but always hopeful leader. And such a balance seems right to me.
Obama has long recognized the importance of the problem. In 2008 he said, “Few challenges facing America--and the world--are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We’ve seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.” And he rightly disdains views that deny or minimize climate change. In Glasgow, he mentioned that efforts to tackle the problem stalled when his “successor [Trump] decided to unilaterally pull out of the Paris Agreement in his first year in office,” and that “the Trump administration rolled back emission requirements for automakers, along with regulatory changes and efficiency standards.” (Considering all the harm Trump did to positive climate efforts Obama could have mentioned much more.)
Yet, unlike some who battle to reduce the earth’s increasing temperatures, he does not ignore the progress we have made. Nor does he think our fight in this struggle is hopeless.
The complexity of our present crisis; the ignorance, opposition, minimizing, and indifference that must be overcome; and the need for global cooperation are mind-boggling.
He pointed to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which the USA and almost 200 other nations signed while he was still president. It stipulated limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels--true, this was only a goal and as of now nations are on track to exceed the ceiling before mid-century. But he indicated that the accord stimulated the private sector to do more and that “today more than one-fifth of the world’s largest companies have set net zero emissions targets. . . . . More than 700 cities in more than 50 countries have pledged to cut their emissions in half by the end of the decade and reach net zero by 2050. About a third of the global banking sector has agreed to align their work with the Paris Agreement.” Moreover, despite Trump’s negative effects, “the determination of . . . state and local governments, along with the regulations and investment” that . . . Obama’s administration “had already put in place,” allowed further progress.
Obama also cited his administration’s $90 billion investment in the U. S. clean energy industry in 2009, which has helped lead to “more than 3 million people now” working in that field, “more than the number of people currently employed by the entire fossil fuel industry.”
He also indicated that “science and technology continue to advance,” allowing “the price of solar and wind energy” to decline. “Around the world, scientists and entrepreneurs are integrating abundant renewable energy, more powerful batteries, breakthroughs in fields like synthetic biology to invent a better future that is healthier and more affordable.” But unlike people like conservative columnist George Will, Obama does not dismiss climate alarmists because he thinks science and technology will bale us out--help, yes; but nullify the need for other steps, no.
Examining most recent developments, Obama points to the accomplishments of his former vice president and now president, Joe Biden. “Last week, Congress passed President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill that will, among other things, create jobs manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines and batteries and electric vehicles and build out the first ever national network of charging stations so families can travel across the US in electric vehicles.” Obama is also “confident that a version of President Biden’s Build Back Better bill [BBBB] will pass through Congress in the coming next few weeks.” As presently proposed, it will, among other stipulations, “devote over half a trillion dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over a billion metric tons by the end of the decade, at least 10 times more than any legislation previously passed by Congress.” (On November 19th the House of Representatives passed the BBBB.) In addition, Obama noted that President Biden indicated “that the US will be quadrupling its annual climate finance pledge over the next few years,” partly to help “vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of climate change.”
At Glasgow Obama recognized that recently, including at the conference, “more than 100 countries have . . . promised to stop and reverse deforestation by the end of 2030. Businesses from around the world, name brands, some of the biggest businesses on this planet have agreed to help create a market for the technologies we need to transition to clean energy. More than a hundred countries this past week have committed to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.” And “nations have also committed to help poorer countries move away from fossil fuels and deal with the effects of climate change.” Moreover, “the US along with 20 other countries agreed to stop publicly financing international fossil fuel development with limited exceptions.”
As is fitting for the politician who once wrote The Audacity of Hope, Obama added, “There are times where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late and images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams. And yet whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards. We can’t afford hopelessness. Instead, we are going to have to muster the will and the passion and the activism of citizens, pushing governments, companies, and everyone else to meet this challenge.”
And indeed the challenge is monumental, arguably greater than any of us--even oldsters like me--have ever faced. Greater than the Great Depression, WWII, or the Cold War. The complexity of our present crisis; the ignorance, opposition, minimizing, and indifference that must be overcome; and the need for global cooperation are mind-boggling.
Obama acknowledged such. After starting his speech by listing what he calls the “good news,” he turned to “the bad news.” He began by noting that “most countries have failed to meet the action plans” they set in 2015 in Paris, and that “85% of the global population has experienced weather events” that were more severe because of climate change.” These events have triggered “new migration patterns and worsening conflict around the globe.”
One of the main reasons for this insufficient progress has been a lack of unity, both within nations and between them. In the USA, Obama lamented Trump’s “lack of leadership” on the issue and “that one of our two major parties has decided not only to sit on the sidelines, but express active hostility toward climate science and make climate change a partisan issue.” On the global front, he bemoaned the “rise of nationalism and tribal impulses around the world,” and he found it “particularly discouraging” that neither China or Russia, “two of the world’s largest emitters’’ of global-warming gases “declined to even attend the proceedings.” Moreover, he thought “their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency.”
Obama also recognized opposition from fossil fuel companies; “climate deniers out there who, for ideological reasons, you will never convince”; “all the misinformation and propaganda” coming from social media; and corporations more interested in “short term profits, not . . . major social issues.”
The main hope that Obama emphasized was the work of young people, which is why after a little more than half way through his speech he said he wanted to talk “directly to young people who may be watching and wondering what they can do to help.”
He mentioned his own two daughters, now in their early twenties, and young climate activists like Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, who has “inspired millions of people to join the largest climate demonstrations in decades,” and those he has met in his Obama Foundation. He applauded them for “forming a movement across borders to make the older generation that got us into this mess see that we all have an obligation to dig ourselves out of it.”
His main advice to young people was to vote: “We will not have more ambitious climate plans coming out of governments unless governments feel some pressure from voters.” Secondly, the young can pressure “companies to do the right thing.” Thirdly, they can educate their parents and other older people.
His final bit of advice is that which he has been giving for a long time. We read it, for example, in his pre-presidential The Audacity of Hope and in his 2010 University of Michigan Commencement Speech: listen and be empathetic and tolerant toward those not yet converted to climate awareness. “We can’t just yell at them or say they’re ignorant. We can’t just tweet at them. It’s not enough to inconvenience them through blocking traffic in a protest. We actually have to listen to their objections and understand the reluctance of some ordinary people to see their countries move too fast on climate change. We have to understand their realities and work with them.”
He cited, for example, “workers and communities that still depend on coal for power and jobs.” He stressed it was “not unreasonable for them” to think “some of those costs of transition [to clean energy] will be borne by them. Not by the more powerful and the privilege.” Thus he argued that “we need to make sure the people most affected by the transition to clean energy, aren’t the ones bearing most of the cost.”
Obama’s final words to young people were “stay angry . . . . stay frustrated, but channel that anger, harness that frustration, keep pushing harder and harder, for more and more because that’s what’s required to meet this challenge. Gird yourself for a marathon, not a sprint. . . . If each of us can fight through the occasional frustration and dread, if we pledge to do our part and then follow through on those commitments, I believe we can secure a better future. We have to. And what a profound and noble task to set for ourselves.”
Like all of us, Obama has made his mistakes, including some as president and regarding climate, but his Glasgow speech once again demonstrates his essential soundness and a progressivism that is rational, inspiring, patient, empathetic, and tolerant.
Walter G. Moss