Wed 10 Nov 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/
The former US president directed his Cop26 speech at young people, but he made the task of keeping warming to 1.5C far harder
Hundreds of people thronged the corridors at Cop26 on Monday, trying to make it into an event in one of the Scottish Event Campus’s drab plenary rooms. Passing by, I asked a man in the crowd what all the commotion was for. He responded with one word: “Obama.” The former president still maintains his rock star-ish appeal. His speech proved the biggest draw of the conference so far. But what should we make of it in the cold light of day?
Much of his message was directed at young people, whom he praised as both “sophisticated consumers” and the source of the “most important energy in this movement”. He was clear: it’s up to all of us – but especially young people – to come together and keep the planet from warming beyond 1.5C. “Collectively and individually we are still falling short” he said, in the kind ofgrand, sweeping tones that built his career. “We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis. We are going to have to do more. Whether that happens or not to a large degree is going to depend on you.”
Who precisely is “we” in this scenario? The young people who were children when Obama took office did not clear the way for a 750% explosion in crude oil exports, as he did just a few days after the Paris agreement was brokered in 2015. Nor did they boast proudly about it years later, as ever-more research mounted about the dangers of continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Speaking at a Houston, Texas gala in 2018, the former president proudly took credit for booming US fossil fuel production. “Suddenly America is the largest oil producer. That was me people,” he boasted jokingly to an industry-friendly crowd. “Say thank you.”
The UN-backed 2021 Production Gap Report found that world governments are now on track to produce double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than is compatible with keeping warming below 1.5C. Obama’s approach to boosting gas and renewables simultaneously, which he dubbed the “All of the above” doctrine, still appears to be a guiding principle of the Biden administration.
Young people also didn’t use the US Export-Import Bank to direct $34bn to 70 fossil fuel projects around the world. Neither did they deploy the National Security Administration to surveil other countries’ delegations at the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009. And they have not joined other wealthy nations at the UN Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC) talks to keep conversations about the enormous climate debt they owe the rest of the world off the table.
Obama’s rhetoric mirrored the approach of the United States at countless climate talks. Where it tends to collapse the vast differences between and within countries, to avoid all but the most symbolic discussions of “common but differentiated responsibility”, as it says in the UNFCCC.
The global north is responsible for 92% of excess carbon dioxide emissions since the dawn of the industrial age. The United States alone is responsible for 40% of those – a fact its negotiators in Republican and Democratic administrations alike have long sought to obscure. “If equity’s in,” said top Obama-era climate negotiator Todd Stern at climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011, “we’re out.
Obama speech day was also, less glamorously, loss and damage day. Climate-vulnerable countries continue to demand real financial commitments to support them rebuilding from the damages that rising temperatures are already causing. His administration is one major reason why that’s been so difficult. “There’s one thing that we don’t accept and won’t accept in this agreement,” Stern said while negotiating the Paris agreement in 2015, “and that is the notion that there should be liability and compensation for loss and damage. That’s a line that we can’t cross.”
Obama wants to continue to make lofty speeches, which are ultimately campaigning for a return to his version of business as usual – better than Trump but utterly ill-equipped to take on the climate crisis. And he can’t help but take a swings at the left. “Don’t think you can ignore politics … You can’t be too pure for it,” he scolded. “It’s part of the process that is going to deliver all of us.”
Plenty of young people did get involved in electoral politics, of course. They knocked on doors and made phone calls for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. He enjoyed the support of 60% of voters under 30, partly for his commitment to a $16.3tn green new deal climate programme.
To hear Obama tell it, if enough people come together to raise awareness about the climate crisis and consume smartly, they will change enough hearts and minds to keep warming below 1.5C. That would be a lot easier if Obama, in his time as leader of the free world, hadn’t made the task so much harder for all those inspiring, passionate young people.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and a reporting fellow at the Climate Social Science Network. She is the author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke The Planet – And How We Fight Back