Barack Obama Returns to COP26 With a Call for Activism

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GLASGOW — Former President Barack Obama, who helped to seal the Paris climate agreement six years ago, appeared at the climate summit here to assure a global audience that despite American political divisions, officials remain committed to the cause.

“Politics in the United States are not always easy,” he said. “My successor maybe wasn’t as interested in climate science as I was, it turns out.”

His successor, Donald J. Trump, pulled the United States out of the Paris accord and unwound more than 100 of Mr. Obama’s environmental regulations. The Obama administration’s original targets to reduce its emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases remain unmet, and it’s unclear exactly how the new targets set by President Biden will be fulfilled, given the obstacles he has faced in Congress.

“It’s one of the things about democracy,” said Mr. Obama, who took no questions from reporters. “You don’t always get your way.”

Mr. Obama’s appearance at the summit was greeted with enormous enthusiasm, with a large crowd of delegates crowding around to catch a glimpse of the former president and loudly cheering as he walked into the hall.

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.”

Mr. Obama’s agenda was carefully curated. He spoke first 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 was scheduled to attend a closed-door session with a bloc of countries that call themselves the High Ambition Coalition. His day at the two-week summit, which is the 26th session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations climate change convention, or COP26, ends with a round table with a group of youth advocating for climate action.

But even before he began speaking, 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.”

It is a current running through the proceedings: young activists angry at the older presidents and prime ministers of big polluter nations for failing to act swiftly to reduce emissions and aid those most vulnerable to climate disasters.

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.

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Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, in 2019, when high waves forced some residents to flee their homes.Credit…Hilary Hosia/AFP — Getty Images

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.”

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