climate change

Obama: The US has a tremendous responsibility to act on climate change

Barack Obama during his COP26 keynote climate speech. Photo credit: UN Climate Change / Kiara Worth via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

COP26 gave us a blast from the past as former US president Barack Obama gave a climate change keynote speech. 

Some will be frustrated about how little the Obama administration achieved in tackling climate change during Obama’s two terms as a president. But one thing that is hard to dispute is his passion and clarity when speaking on this issue.

Paris just the beginning

Speaking for just under an hour to a packed and enthusiastic audience, the former US president opened with a rehash of his former climate speeches highlighting the advance of the clean energy economy, and how investing in clean energy is helping the economy. 

He also said that many of the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement have come true, and he said that, despite the Trump administration having done everything in its power to dismantle his climate agenda, the US has continued to move forward. 

On a more serious note, Obama said that the world is nowhere near where we need to be, even though progress had been made. Despite what Paris promised, most countries have failed to deliver what they pledged six years ago. 

Obama added that we must remember that Paris was just the beginning and targets should be gradually ratcheted up. “We have to track commitments and make sure they follow through. They don’t execute by themselves”, he said.

We can’t afford hopelessness

In an honest and frank address, Obama, the 44th US president, admitted that even he gets pessimistic sometimes, saying: “There are times where I’m doubtful humanity can get its act together before it’s too late.” But in an effort to inject passion and determination into the process and the climate movement, he defiantly said: “But we can’t afford hopelessness, we must muster the passion, action and the need to act to pressure our governments. We need people to turn their passion into words.”

Addressing the problem of what he did get through during his presidency, he talked about the obstruction and blocks he faced, many of the same obstructions that President Joe Biden is currently facing in getting his climate agenda through Congress.

Joe Biden has struggled to get his infrastructure bill which included significant climate change spending through Congress, and the final bill which got through was a watered-down version where much climate spending had been removed.  

And this is despite the Democratic control of the House, while the Senate is split between both parties with Vice-President Kamala Harris having the deciding vote. 

Obama himself faced many similar obstructions in Congress to his climate moves. Many analysts refer to the partisan blocks as one of the main reasons the Obama Administration struggled to get much climate legislation through Congress. In the end, all he had left was to move policy forward through executive orders.

Saving the planet should not be a partisan issue

Obama stopped short of calling the US corrupt but did say that the world’s largest economy is facing more stumbling blocks with regard to climate than most other countries, and he indicated frustration that in the US saving the planet is a partisan issue.

Obama sought to finish up on a defiant note. While acknowledging there is a lot of work still to do he urged people not to give up: “Meeting 1.5 degrees C target is not going to be easy, it is going to be hard. Getting people to work together on a global scale takes time, and it is time we don’t have. We will face more setbacks and we will be forced to settle for compromises, but at least we will move forward. I want you to stay angry, I want you to stay frustrated but I want you to channel it and keep pushing forward. This is a marathon and not a sprint.”

The room responded with warm applause, and then he was gone, and we were indeed in 2021 and had not been transfixed back into the Obama years.

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