GLASGOW, Scotland — In an address to the U.N. Climate Change Conference on Monday afternoon, former President Barack Obama returned to the rhetorical device that made him a political sensation almost two decades ago: that hope, and a youth-led movement, can triumph over cynicism and the forces of division.
The man who skyrocketed to stardom at the 2004 Democratic National Convention with a speech asserting, “We're not red states and blue states; we're all Americans,” tried to reach across the partisan aisle from this Scottish city hosting the climate change negotiations, also known as COP26.
“Saving the planet isn't a partisan issue,” Obama said. “I welcome any faction within the Republican Party that takes climate change seriously.”
“That may be a rare breed now,” he acknowledged, “but keep in mind such Republicans used to be commonplace.” He went on to note that in 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush’s administration participated in the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which led to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the treaty that the entire international climate agreement process has followed from.
He went on to note that the devastating impacts of climate change are already being felt by the entire country.
“It doesn’t matter if you're a Republican or Democrat, if your Florida house is flooded by rising seas, or your crops fail in the Dakotas, or your California house is burning down,” the former president observed. “Nature, physics, science do not care about party affiliation.”
“We don’t just need the Democrats or the Green Party or progressives working on this existential problem,” he continued. “We need everybody, even if we disagree on other things.”
At the same time, Obama conceded that his domestic political rivals in the GOP have hampered his country’s response to climate change.
“Back home in the United States, some of our progress stalled when my successor decided to unilaterally pull out of the Paris Agreement,” Obama said, referring to former President Donald Trump and the climate pact whose successor is being negotiated in Glasgow. “I wasn’t real happy about that.” He may have meant the line as a wry joke, but no one laughed.
Obama touted President Biden’s recent Build Back Better proposal, a massive social spending bill that would allocate more than $500 billion on combating climate change over 10 years, and he expressed confidence that it would pass “within a few weeks.” Democrats had been hoping to pass it before the Glasgow conference in order to bolster the prospects for a strong agreement. But Obama also admitted that Biden had actually wanted to do even more in the bill, but much has been stripped from it at the insistence of Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia.
The Obama administration, which advocated for an ambitious agreement in Paris, was similarly constrained by Republican congressional majorities at the time, which limited the size of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to finance a clean energy transition in developing countries that Obama could promise.
“I am convinced that President Biden's Build Back Better bill will be historic,” Obama said. “But keep in mind: Joe Biden wanted to do even more. He's constrained by the absence of a robust majority that's needed to make that happen. Both of us have been constrained, in large part, by the fact that one of our two major parties has decided to not only sit on the sidelines but to express hostility to climate science and make climate change a partisan issue.
“Thinking back on my own experience as president, I would have had the power to do even more to fight climate change while in office, if I had a stable congressional majority that was willing and eager to take action,” Obama said. “And for the bulk of my presidency, I didn't have that majority.”
Obama then made a plea to the audience to elect only pro-climate candidates and to hold them accountable for their actions once in office. “Getting that majority requires an engaged citizenry,” he declared.
The problem, of course, as articulated by many protesters who have been on the streets of Glasgow in recent days, is that politicians often seem to talk about combating climate change but fail to deliver swift and decisive action. That situation, Obama said, can understandably lead to despair.
But he made a plea for ongoing citizen engagement, with a significant focus on the younger generation, which takes climate change most seriously.
“There are times where I feel discouraged,” he said. “There are times where the future seems somewhat bleak ... and images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams. Whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards.”
Obama also admitted that political cooperation between countries, as well as between parties in the United States, has become harder to achieve in recent years,
“I recognize we're living in a moment when international cooperation has waned,” he said, listing rising nationalism, the COVID-19 pandemic and Trump’s “America First” ideology among the causes.
“But there's one thing that should transcend our normal politics and geopolitics,” he said, “and that's climate change.”
Within a week, when the Glasgow conference concludes, the world will know how much concern about the problem has transcended normal politics.