Former US president Barack Obama said young people had the “most important energy” in the climate change battle, in a rousing speech at the COP26 summit in Glasgow that earned him a standing ovation.
Speaking six years after his appearance at the Paris summit that forged agreement on keeping global warming to well below 2C since pre-industrial levels, Obama said the young were right to be frustrated at his generation’s failure to deal with the “potentially cataclysmic problem” they stood to inherit.
“Vote the issue. Vote like your life depends on it, because it does,” he said.
“Don’t think that you can ignore politics . . . You can’t be too pure for it. It’s part of the process that is going to deliver all of us,” he said, adding that young people could also pressure companies and educate their elders.
By far the most famous figure attending COP26 as it entered its second week, Obama’s arrival brought a sprinkle of political stardust to a summit increasingly focused on the unglamorous task of hammering out detailed international consensus on complex technical issues and rules.
He also backed the so-called “high ambition coalition” of countries in the push for a firm limit to global warming at 1.5C as part of negotiations. That grouping includes the US and the EU, as well as many developing countries, but not the fossil-fuel reliant economies which have diverged.
“The brutal tempests of the warming climate are making even clearer that we cross that line at our peril,” he said, with global warming already at 1.1C.
COP26 highlighted the return of the US to international efforts to curb global warming after what Obama described as the “hostility” of the presidency of Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Paris accord.
However, the arrival in Glasgow this week of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and dozens of members of the US Congress comes without any prospect of the US passing key climate-focused legislation before it ends.
Obama said he was confident “a version” of Biden’s $1.75tn “Build Back Better” social security package — which includes around $550bn of environmental provisions — would pass through Congress “in the coming next few weeks”.
At the same time, he took aim at China and Russia over the absence of their leaders from Glasgow, saying it showed a “dangerous lack of urgency”.
Obama also praised the energy of young climate activists, which has been on display in Glasgow through a host of events and protests around the summit.
While saying that if “older folks won’t listen, they need to get out of the way”, the former president also called for campaigners to be attentive to the concerns of those who worried about the effects on their livelihoods from eliminating carbon-intensive industries.
“We can’t just yell at them, or say they are ignorant, we can’t just tweet at them. It’s not enough to inconvenience them by blocking traffic in a protest,” Obama said.
The former president ruefully noted his changed status with jokes about how music no longer played when he entered the room and “traffic is a thing again”, but hailed the efforts of sleepy negotiators subjected to “weak coffee and bad food” at COP26.
In a slightly misfiring effort to make local references, the former president referred to being in the “Emerald Isle” — which is actually how Ireland is characterised — and quoted William Shakespeare as “the Bard”, a title in Scotland that is more often given to 18th century poet Robert Burns.
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