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by Andrew Learmonth
08 November 2021
Obama urges young climate activists to harness anger but to accept 'messy' COP26 compromise

Obama urges young climate activists to harness anger but to accept 'messy' COP26 compromise

Barack Obama has urged young climate activists to accept “imperfect compromise” as part of any COP26 agreement. 

Speaking to the plenary of the UN climate conference in Glasgow, the former President said it was important to advance the cause, and build political momentum. Addressing young activists in particular, he warned them that the fight against climate change was a marathon and not a sprint.

He urged them to get their “hands dirty” and “get involved with changing political dynamics in our countries”. 

In the keynote speech, Obama also criticised his successor, saying he was not very happy at Donald Trump’s decision to remove the US from the agreement reached at the COP21 in Paris. 

“Some of our progress stalled when my successor decided to unilaterally pull out of the Paris Agreement in his first year in office,” he said.

“I wasn’t real happy about that. And yet, the determination of our state and local governments, along with the regulations and investment that my administration had already put in place, we were able to keep moving forward despite hostility from the White House.”

And he insisted the US met its obligations under the Paris Agreement despite Trump’s “active hostility towards climate science”. 

There was criticism too for Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin for not joining the summit.

The ex-President was speaking on the summit’s day to discuss adaption, how countries already susceptible to climate change, can mitigate or learn to live with the impact. 

There is huge disagreement over how much rich nations should pay to help poorer countries affected. 

Towards the end of his speech, Obama urged delegates in the hall to be mindful of the “embedded inequalities.”

The former commander-in-chief also warned that it was not enough to “mobilise the converted”.

“Protests are necessary to raise awareness. Hashtag campaigns can spread awareness but to build the broad-based coalitions necessary for bold action, we have to persuade people who either currently don't agree with us or are indifferent to the issue and to change the minds of those fellow citizens in our respective countries. 

“We have to do a little more listening. We can't just yell at them or say they're ignorant. We can't just tweet at them. It's not enough to inconvenience them through blocking traffic and a protest. We actually have to listen to their objections and understand so that serious action on climate change doesn't adversely impact them.”

“So listen, it is true, a lot of climate opposition comes from fossil fuel companies trying to make a buck despite the green ads that they run on TV. It's true that there are climate deniers out there who for ideological reasons you will never convince. 

“But I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the fact that we've got to persuade the guy who has to drive to his factory job every single day. Can't afford a Tesla and might not be able to pay the rent or feed his family if gas prices go up. 

“We have to think about the mother in India, who yes, will suffer droughts and floods made worse by climate change, but whose more immediate concern is getting electricity so her children don't have to sit in the dark every night and can do their homework. 

“You can't dismiss that concern. There are workers and communities that still depend on coal for power and jobs. And they, yes, they are concerned about maintaining their wages. That's not unreasonable for them to be concerned about that. 

“And the fact is, the truth is that transitioning from dirty energy to clean energy does have a cost, and it is not unreasonable for people who often are already economically vulnerable, and maybe don't feel particularly politically powerful, it's not unreasonable for them to think that, for all the highfalutin talk, some of those costs of transition will be borne by them not by the more powerful and the privileged.” 

Obama said any climate plan worth its salt “has to take these inequities into account, whether it's through subsidies to poor people to ease the transition to clean energy, whether it's technology transfers that help poor countries meet their development goals by leapfrogging dirty fuels, we have to pay attention to those embedded inequities and the politics that surrounds them.” 

Keeping the rising global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius would, he said, be hard. 

“Existing political institutions move slowly, even when leaders are well intentioned. 

“International cooperation has always been difficult. It's made more difficult by all the misinformation and propaganda that can flood out through social media these days. 

“Business leaders, let's face it, are typically rewarded for boosting short term profits, not addressing major social issues. Getting people to work together on a global scale takes time.

“And right now, that's time we don't have. So if we're honest with ourselves, yes, this is gonna be really hard.

“The thing we have going for us is that humanity has done hard things before. I believe we can do hard things again. Yes, the process will be messy. I guarantee you every victory will be incomplete.

"We will face more setbacks. Sometimes we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises. Because even if they don't achieve everything we want at least they advance the cause. At least they move the ball down the field.

“If we work hard enough for long enough those partial victories add up. If we push hard enough, stay focused enough and are smart about it, those victories accelerate and they build momentum. 

“If we listen to those who are resistant, and we take their concerns seriously, and we work with them and we organise and we mobilise and we get our hands dirty in the difficulties of changing political dynamics in our countries, those victories start happening a little bit more frequently. If we stay with it, we will get this done”

Young people, he said, needed to channel their anger and harness their frustration. 

“Keep pushing harder and harder for more and more. Because that's what's required to meet this challenge. Gird yourself for a marathon, not a sprint. For solving a problem this big this complex and this important, has never happened all at once.”

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - SNP minister's 'disappointment and loss' over Derek Mackay texting scandal

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