Barack Obama Calls for ‘Ongoing Activism’ In COP26 Speech
Obama to Young People on Climate: ‘You Are Right to Be Frustrated’
Former President Barack Obama addressed young people directly at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, urging them to engage in political action and activism to push world leaders into action on the climate crisis.
You’ve been bombarded with warnings about what the future will look like if you don’t address climate change. And meanwhile, you’ve grown up watching many of the adults who are in positions to do something about it either act like the problem doesn’t exist or refuse to make the hard decisions necessary to address it. You are right to be frustrated. Folks in my generation have not done enough to deal with a potentially cataclysmic problem that you now stand to inherit. But I also want to share some advice from my mother used to give me. You know, if I was feeling anxious or angry or depressed or scared — she’d look at me and she’d say, “Don’t sulk. Get busy. Get to work. And change what needs to be changed.” Vote like your life depends on it because it does. I recognize that a lot of young people may be cynical about politics. But the cold, hard fact is we will not have more ambitious climate plans coming out of governments unless governments feel some pressure from voters. So if we’re honest with ourselves, yes, this is going to be really hard. The thing we have going for us is that humanity has done hard things before. I believe we can do hard things again. Yes, the process will be messy. I guarantee you every victory will be incomplete. We will face more setbacks. Sometimes, we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises, because even if they don’t achieve everything we want, at least they advance the cause, at least they move the ball down the field. But if we work hard enough for long enough, those partial victories add up.
GLASGOW — Former President Barack Obama, who helped to seal the Paris climate agreement six years ago, returned to an international climate summit here to rally nations to heal the planet, acknowledging the enormous complexity of the crisis but arguing that humanity has the capacity to create a safer, healthier world.
“To be honest with ourselves, yes, this is going to be really hard,” said Mr. Obama, who was welcomed with sustained applause by delegates from nearly 200 nations. “The thing we have going for us, is that humanity has done hard things before. I believe we can do hard things again.”
“Yes, the process will be messy,” he said. “I guarantee you every victory will be incomplete. Sometimes we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises. But at least they advance the ball down the field. If we work hard enough, for long enough, those partial victories add up.”
Mr. Obama noted that the Paris agreement, signed by 197 countries in 2015, created a framework for climate action, but nations, including the United States, failed to follow through on their commitments to keep global warming within relatively safe margins.
“Important work was done there, and important work is being done here,” he said. “That is the good news. Now, for the bad news. We are nowhere near where we need to be.”
Mr. Obama’s appearance at the summit was greeted with enormous enthusiasm, with a large crowd straining to catch a glimpse of the former president, phones held aloft to catch a quick photo, as he walked into the hall. He received a standing ovation after his address.
In his remarks, the former president spoke directly to young people, who have filled the streets of Glasgow and around the world to demand more ambitious action on climate change from their leaders. He urged them to keep up the pressure on governments, institutions and businesses to cut the emissions that are heating the Earth.
“The cold hard fact is, we will not have more ambitious climate plans coming out of governments unless governments feel some pressure from voters,” he said.
“Don’t think you can ignore politics,” Mr. Obama said. “You don’t have to be happy about it. But you can’t ignore it. You can’t be too pure for it. It’s part of the process that’s going to deliver all of us.”
“The most important energy in this movement is coming from young people,” he said, to applause from the audience. “And the reason is simple. They have more at stake in this than anybody else.”
He said he understood the psychic weight carried by younger generations, and the anger that many feel about inheriting a world where storms have become more ferocious and frequent, heat waves more deadly, where species are disappearing and the future feels frightening.
“I’m the father of two daughters in their early 20s,” he said. “It’s not always easy being young today. For most of your lives, if you’re in that generation, you’ve been bombarded about what the future will look like if we don’t do anything about climate change. And you’ve grown up watching the adults either act like the problem doesn’t exist or don’t do anything about it. It’s a real source of anxiety and some of you no doubt wonder if you’ll be safe.”
And he acknowledged that he, too, sometimes felt overwhelmed by the crisis.
“There are times where I feel discouraged, there are times when the future seems somewhat bleak, there are times when I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late,” he said. “Images of dystopia creep into my dreams.”
But, he cautioned, “cynicism is the recourse of cowards. We can’t afford hopelessness.”
“This is not just about raw numbers,” he said. “This is not just about science. This is about politics, culture, morality. It’s about the human dynamic. How do we work together to get a big thing done. It’s about participation. It’s about power.”
He made a glancing reference to his successor, Donald J. Trump, who pulled the United States out of the Paris accord and unwound more than 100 of Mr. Obama’s environmental regulations, calling the period “four years of active hostility toward climate science, coming from very top of our government.”
Mr. Obama also called out the Republican Party. “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,” he said.
In Washington, President Biden’s climate agenda is stuck in a spending bill pending in Congress that Republicans have refused to support.
“Saving the planet isn’t a partisan issue,” Mr. Obama said, adding that politics don’t matter “if your Florida house is flooded by rising seas, or your crops fail in the Dakotas or your California house is burning down. Nature, science do not care about party affiliation.”
He urged the delegates to keep pushing forward, turning to Shakespeare for inspiration about the pace of progress. “What wound, he writes, did ever heal but by degrees?” Mr. Obama said.
“Our planet has been wounded by our actions,” he said. “Those wounds won’t be healed today or tomorrow or the next. But they can be healed by degrees. If we start with that spirit, if each of us can fight through the occasional frustration and the dread, if we do our part and follow through our commitment, I believe we can secure our future. We have to. And what a profound and noble task we have set for ourselves.”
His agenda for the day was carefully curated. In addition to a general address, Mr. Obama spoke to leaders of several island countries already feeling the acute impacts of climate change, emphasizing the need for money to help vulnerable countries adapt to a hotter planet and describing himself as “an island kid.”
He also attended a closed-door session with a bloc of countries that call themselves the High Ambition Coalition. He was scheduled to end his day with a round table with a group of youth advocates.
During the round table with the island nations, Mr. Obama noted that the United States, the nation that has historically pumped the most greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, was a target of critics at the summit. But he suggested that criticism aimed at members of the American delegation was misplaced.
“Sometimes it will feel like the U.S. and some of the other countries are not always moving as fast or following through with commitments as much as we like,” he said. “It’s not for lack of trying by the people who are working here.”
Before he began speaking Monday, pushback came from some young activists, who criticized the United States for not paying its fair share of financial aid to help poor countries address climate change.
The activist Vanessa Nakate wrote on Twitter that she was 13 when the former president promised that the countries of the global north would shore up $100 billion in climate financing a year by 2020. That money hasn’t yet materialized. “The US has broken that promise, it will cost lives in Africa,” she tweeted. “You want to meet #COP26 youth. We want action.”
Mr. Obama said Monday that rich industrialized countries like the United States had “an added burden” to aid nations at the front lines of climate impacts. The United States has been under pressure to increase funding to help countries adapt to climate risks already upon them. The Biden administration has pledged $11.4 billion in climate aid over the next few years, with roughly a fourth of that for adaptation, though that money still requires congressional approval.
“Those of us who live in big wealthy nations, those of us who helped to precipitate the problem, we have an added burden to make sure that we are working with and helping and assisting those who are less responsible and less able and more vulnerable to this oncoming crisis,” Mr. Obama said.
For decades, many of the most vulnerable countries have pressed for reparations from rich industrialized countries, as part of what they call a loss and damage fund. The United States and other rich countries have long been reluctant to agree to anything that opens them up to liability.
The Marshall Islands said it would need “tens of billions” of dollars for adaptation, including to elevate its territory and move its people away from harm’s way.
Mr. Obama offered a nod to the fury of the young, at one point crediting them for their ability to “speak truth to power.”
“Us old folks, the gray-haired types or no-haired types sometimes I think make excuses,” he said.
He took pains to note that the pledges made so far could significantly slow down temperature rise, if they are kept.
“That’s real progress, not enough, but it moves us in right direction,” he said. “That requires ongoing activism in between.”