Obama at world climate conference: We are falling short

Former president tells young U.S. voters, ‘Vote like your life depends on it’

By: - November 8, 2021 4:01 pm

Former U.S. President Barack Obama addresses world leaders Monday at the COP26 international conference on climate change. Obama said nations are not doing enough to prevent catastrophe. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Returning to the world stage on climate change, former President Barack Obama on Monday told world leaders and young people gathered in Glasgow, Scotland, that time is running out to prevent life-threatening degradation of the planet’s climate, and he called on the world’s young people to demand better.

“Collectively and individually, we are still falling short. We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis,” Obama said in an address broadcast from the main stage of the COP 26 world conference on climate.

“The consequences of not moving fast enough are becoming apparent all the time. … There are times when I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late,” Obama said.

“Most nations have failed to be as ambitious as they need to be,” Obama said, citing failures by nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions as much as previously promised and noting that China and Russia are not even participating in this conference.

Along with the United States and India, China is a top emitter of carbon and methane gases polluting the atmosphere and accelerating climate change, according to the United Nations and U.S. sources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The cold, hard fact is we will not have more ambitious climate plans coming out of governments unless governments feel some pressure from voters,” Obama said, calling on young people at the conference and viewing the speech online to become politically active in a big way to force changes in government policies that favor inaction.

“Vote like your life depends on it, because it does,” he urged.

Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swede who has become an icon of youth climate activism, said in Glasgow that world leaders are paying lip service to the crisis, not solving it. Tens of thousands of protesters, including Thunberg, who established student-led demonstrations called “Fridays for Future,” filled the streets of Glasgow over the weekend to demonstrate disdain for the state of affairs, according to the UK-based news networks BBC and The Guardian.

“They are actively creating loopholes, shaping frameworks to benefit themselves to continue profiting from this destructive system. … They know exactly what priceless values they are sacrificing to maintain business as usual,” Thunberg said in a speech reported by the Associated Press and New York Times.

Obama: Politics a barrier to climate action

Obama said progress on climate change, at least in the United States, is hindered by politics.

“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,” Obama continued, noting that former Republican President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from global climate treaties.

“Saving the planet isn’t a partisan issue. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat if your Florida house is flooded by rising seas, or your crops fail in the Dakotas, or your California house is on fire. … We need everybody, even if we disagree on other things.”

Obama said young, climate-conscious voters helped elect President Joe Biden, formerly vice president in Obama’s administration, in 2020, empowering Biden to craft infrastructure and policy plans that include converting the nation to clean energy and creating new jobs in a green economy. Those plans are pending in Congress, which is closely and deeply divided along partisan lines. 

Obama said “politicians sit up and take notice” when voters unite behind an issue, even more than when activists stage large-scale demonstrations and social-media awareness campaigns.

The two-term president, who helped negotiate the 2015 international framework for greenhouse gas reductions known as the Paris Agreement, also called for consumer and labor actions to drive companies into greener operations, a strategy of buying from and working for companies that use and promote clean energy, and snubbing the rest.

“Teach them that by getting serious about climate change, they have a chance to win loyal customers and employees. And they will conversely lose customers and top-flight employees if they’re not on the right side of the issue. That’s your power and you need to use it,” Obama said, as news cameras panned over the audience, focusing on young conferees from various nations listening closely and filming the speech on their cell phones.

Obama also urged climate activists to converse more with everyday people in order to understand and address their concerns, if climate solutions are to take hold.

“It is true a lot of climate opposition comes from fossil-fuel companies trying to make a buck, despite the green ads that they run on TV. It’s true that there are climate deniers, who for ideological reasons you will never convince.

“We’ve got to persuade the guy who has to drive to his factory job every day, can’t afford a Tesla, and might not be able to pay his rent or feed his family if gas prices go up,” Obama said. “Transition from dirty energy to clean energy does have a cost, and it’s not unreasonable for people who often are already economically vulnerable and don’t feel politically empowered … to think that for all the highfalutin’ talk, the costs will be borne by them, not by the powerful and the privileged.”

The climate conference is in its second week, when nations will negotiate formal pledges to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond. Obama and others warn that the nations are not trying hard enough to do what scientists say is required to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. The world is on track to heat the climate by 2 degrees even if nations fulfill pledges made thus far, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a consortium of scientists from the around the world, including the United States.

President Biden, in a keynote address last week, pledged the United States will slash its methane emissions – considered even worse than carbon emission – by one-third by 2030 and will reach net-zero emissions by 2050, doing so through policies implemented by federal agencies in his purview. Further, Biden and congressional Democrats are trying to pass Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan to, in part, regrow the economy in ways that are safer for the climate, make sustainable energy more affordable, and convert jobs in polluting industries into jobs in green industries.

Obama applauded the plan, saying that while all nations should be more ambitious about reducing greenhouse gases, especially top polluters such as China, the United States must lead.

Report: Nations underreporting emissions

Some nations are dramatically underreporting their emissions to the United Nations, which organizes the annual climate conference, according to an analysis published Sunday by the Washington Post.

“Across the world, many countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations,” the Post reported. “An examination of 196 country reports reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.”

The Post reported the discrepancy between reported emissions and actual emissions reaching Earth’s atmosphere is at least as large as annual emissions from the United States and possibly much greater, closer to annual emissions from China.

“The plan to save the world from the worst of climate change is built on data. But the data the world is relying on is inaccurate,” the Post story says.

About this report

States Newsroom’s special reporting on climate will continue throughout the COP 26 global climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.

Read more:

Sports leagues pledge to cut climate-fueling emissions by half this decade

Biden to outline major methane reduction strategy at UN climate conference

Biden calls for ‘decade of action’ on climate, apologizes for Trump exit from Paris Accord

Americans in climate-threatened regions anxious for solutions from world summit

No climate deal for Biden as he joins global allies at critical UN conference

This story was originally published by the Florida Phoenix, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected].