President Obama arrived at the climate conference in Glasgow like a spirit from another time. He wore a black suit and gray shirt, tieless. A crowd of star-struck delegates parted like holy water around him. They all remembered the happy days of the Paris climate agreement in 2015, when he was the President of the United States, Donald Trump was just an orange-haired has-been reality TV star, and there was — for a brief moment — hope that humankind would take dramatic action on the crisis that was threatening the future of civilization. “Seeing Obama walking up to the podium to give his speech was a reminder of a better time,” one delegate emailed me.
His speech began with the good news that nations of the world are making progress in the transition to clean energy. “The bad news,” he said, “is it’s not happening fast enough.” He jabbed China and Russia not even bothering to show up at the conference and for their “dangerous absence of urgency.” He ripped Trump and the entire Republican party for “active hostility toward climate science.”
But the heart of his remarks were targeted at young climate activists. He urged them not to give up on politics: “You don’t have to like it, but you can’t ignore it.” He told them that it was important to reach out to people who are skeptical about the urgency of the climate crisis. “It will not be enough to simply mobilize the converted. It will not be enough to preach to the choir.”
He acknowledged the generational divide between himself and young activists. “For most of your lives you’ve been bombarded with warnings about what the future will look like if you don’t address climate change, but you see adults who act like the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “You are right to be frustrated. Folks in my generation have not done enough to deal with a potentially cataclysmic problem that you now stand to inherit.”
“I want you to stay angry,” Obama urged. “I want you to stay frustrated. Keep pushing for more and more. Because that’s required to meet this challenge. Gird yourself for a marathon, not a sprint.”
The delegates in the convention hall gave him a standing ovation. To many of them, the speech was powerful in a very Obama-like way: cool, smart, cutting, quietly passionate.
But outside the hall, in the streets where young activists felt their world was on fire, it was the same old same old.
For one thing, they were all very aware that Obama has no actual power any more. As he frankly admitted, he was there as a private citizen who cares about the state of the planet (earlier, Obama joked to the press that he was there as climate envoy John Kerry’s “hype man.”) To many people inside the hall, he is an activist with roots in the civil rights movement who brought the wisdom gained in Selma and Montgomery to the climate fight. To others, he is the sorta funny, sorta wise relative who turns up at your house on holidays.
But the big problem was Obama’s words were that they were just words. And there have been too many words before. Too much high-mindedness. Too much bending of the moral arc of the universe. Too much blah, blah, blah.
We are now in the post-speech era of climate crisis, where words don’t matter to the people who matter. Young activists have figured out that the older generation is fucked up, that they don’t care about their future. The climate fight is no longer about levels of CO2 in the atmosphere: It is now about the rich, greedy older generation killing off their young.
“I thought President Obama’s speech was out-of-date, to be honest,” says futurist Alex Steffen, author of a forthcoming book The Snap Forward. “This was the speech Obama should have given back at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009. A dozen years later, it’s too late to be vague about why we’re failing. Climate politics is defined by speed. We know that climate action is faltering because of intentional, predatory delay. We know that the costs of bold action are outweighed by the costs of doing nothing. We know that a large majority of Americans — and the overwhelming majority of people around the world — speed means more prosperity. For most of us, there is no such thing as going too fast. When it comes to climate action how fast we go is the future we get. It does no damn good at all to pretend that we just need to work harder to persuade people who’ve proved that — as long as they’re pulling profits — they couldn’t care less how hot the planet gets.”
“Listening to Obama’s speech, I was reminded of all the broken promises made by leaders in America concerning the climate crisis,” said Varshini Prakash, Executive Director of Sunrise Movement. “Young and marginalized communities have been betrayed again and again by leaders failing to meet the moment that we’re in — a climate crisis that is destroying our homes, communities and futures.”
Just before Obama took the stage, Dominika Lasota, a 19 year-old Polish activist, tweeted a picture of activists holding up signs that said “Show Us the Money.” Lasota wrote: “Nice words about the climate crisis without action mean NOTHING. $100B for climate finance is still missing. Show us the money – not empty climate concern!”
Peter Kalmus, a NASA climate scientist (who spoke to me, he wanted to make clear, on his own behalf), was also deeply skeptical. “Anyone who cares about a livable planet must always watch the actions of world leaders. Their words are worthless.” To Kalmus, the climate fight now offers a binary choice. “World leaders can’t have it both ways. Either they act on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, or they stand up for the young people and the Earth. We have gotten to this fork in the road.”
In Glasgow, Obama stood inside among the elite but tried to speak to the people outside in the streets. It was weird. Inside the hall, he was treated like a boomer rock star by the people he wasn’t really talking to. Outside, the people he really was talking to thought of him as just another slick politician making noise on stage.
“He had eight years as president, and what did he do?” Sarah Rogers, a UK activist, emailed me while she was participating in a street demonstration in Glasgow. “What did he get done?”
Well, I responded, he and John Kerry were largely responsible for getting China engaged in the Paris climate deal in 2015, and there were new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, and the Clean Power Plan than limited CO2 pollution from existing power plants…
“Yeah, yeah,” she replied. “But the world is still burning, isn’t it?”
To activists in the streets, what’s happening in the conference center is theater. “Many are asking what it’ll take for people in power to wake up,” Greta Thunberg said in a speech. “But let’s be clear — they’re already awake. They know exactly what they’re doing. They know exactly what priceless values they’re sacrificing to maintain business as usual.” Thunberg pointed out that the fossil fuel industry delegation at the Glasgow conference was bigger than the delegation of any single nation. She tweeted: “I don’t know about you, but I sure am not comfortable with having some of the world’s biggest villains influencing & dictating the fate of the world.”
Other activists were even more cutting. “Inside that conference of polluters, the climate criminals are hiding behind barbed wire and fences and lines of police,” Asad Rehman of the COP26 Coalition of activist groups, told the crowd on Glasgow Green. “We’re not going to accept their suicide pact.”
Given all the lies that the fossil fuel industry has spewed over the last three decades, this is not a surprising view. But Michael Mann, a Penn State climate scientist and author of The New Climate War, worries that the idea of everyone inside the conference center is evil and untrustworthy is dangerous in itself. “Let’s call out bad actors, speak truth to power & not allow politicians to make empty promises,” Mann tweeted. “But let’s NOT throw out the baby w/ the bathwater. The COP process is the only viable multilateral vehicle we have right now for global climate action.”
“Beware of the slippery slope from cynicism to nihilism,” Mann wrote in another tweet. “It leads to the same place as denialism: inaction. Which is precisely what polluters and those doing their bidding want.”
The Glasgow conference doesn’t end until November 12. The important deals come together in the final days, so it’s way too premature to judge the outcome yet. But it’s pretty obvious that world leaders are not going to write a blank check to developing nations to help them adapt to climate impacts, nor are they going to shut down the fossil fuel industry or push for the indictment of Darren Woods, the CEO of ExxonMobil, for crimes against humanity.
Instead, Glasgow is likely to be, as Obama suggested in his speech, just another skirmish in the long, hard fight for justice and equity and a habitable planet.
Dana Fisher, an environmental-activism expert at the University of Maryland and author of American Resistance, an account of political activism in the Trump era, worries about what that will mean for the climate movement. “After Glasgow, are activists going to realize they didn’t have much impact after all and go off and become investment bankers? I don’t think so. We already have people trying to starve themselves in front the White House in order to push congress to take action. Are they going to set themselves on fire, like protestors did during the Vietnam war? I hope not. But if you believe that everyone inside the building is evil and corrupt, what strategies do you use to increase political pressure?”
Fisher describes herself as an “apocalyptic optimist.” She believes that nothing is really going to change until see many more wildfires burning in the west, many more storms destroying cities, and so much illness and death that the COIVD pandemic looks like a day in the park. “Then, maybe we will see a real transformation.”
In the darkest and most personal moment in his remarks in Glasgow, Obama seemed to agree. “There are times where the future seems bleak…where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late. Images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams…” But then he paused and delivered the best line of his speech: “Whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards.”
Very few people heard him. But someday, when words matter again in the climate fight, these words might matter a great deal.