Climate change should not be a partisan issue, former President Barack Obama said on Monday as he addressed attendees of the UN Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland.
In a speech reflecting on his legacy, America’s role in climate leadership, and the role of young activists in spearheading action, Obama also addressed the current political divide in the U.S.
“The U.S. appears to have a more vigorous hostility to climate than other places. That’s got to stop. Saving the planet is not a partisan issue,” Obama said, adding: “Climate change can’t be seen as an opportunity to score political points.”
Without directly naming his successor Donald Trump, or the Republican Party, Obama deplored their “active hostility” toward climate science. “It does not matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat if your Florida house is flooded by rising seas, or your crops fail in the Dakotas or your California house burns down,” Obama said. “Science does not care about party affiliation.”
Earlier in the day, the former president addressed a panel focusing on “partnerships for island resilience: sharing solutions in the great Ocean States,” raising again the point of political processes standing in the way of progress. “Sometimes it may feel like the United States is not always moving as fast or following through on our commitments as much as we’d like. It’s not for lack of trying by the kinds of people that you’re working with. We’ve got our contentious battles. It’s one thing about democracy—it turns out you don’t always get your way,” he said.
Obama confirmed his attendance at the UN Climate Conference on November 4 but details of his engagements were only released on Sunday evening. The long line formed outside the plenary room where Obama spoke and the thunderous applause and cheers following him onstage signaled ongoing enthusiasm for the former U.S. president, who first committed the country to the climate targets of the Paris Agreement.
Obama jokingly downplayed his position at the beginning of his speech: “I am a private citizen now, so trips like these feel a bit different than they used to. I don’t get invited to the group photo; traffic is a thing again; music doesn’t play when I enter the room. On the other hand, I can give a speech like this without a tie on and not create a scandal back home—I hope.”
The former president expressed regret for not having done more to tackle climate change while in power, due to being deprived of a robust majority in Congress for most of his presidency—a situation he sees affecting President Joe Biden’s effort to pass meaningful legislation to support America’s green transition.
While expressing confidence that a version of Biden’s Build Back Better plan would pass Congress in the next few weeks, Obama also underlined the need for citizens committed to climate action, especially young people, to exercise their right to vote. “Cynicism is the recourse of cowards. We can’t afford hopelessness. Instead, we’ll have to muster the will and the passion and the activism of citizens to push governments to meet this challenge,” Obama said.
“Vote like your life depends on it—because it does. We will not have more ambitious climate plans coming out of governments unless governments feel some pressure from voters,” he added.
Specifically addressing young people fighting for climate action, Obama also cautioned them to listen to the concerns of those who fear the clean energy transition’s impact on their livelihood. “We have to understand their realities and work with them, so that serious action on climate change doesn’t adversely impact them,” he said. “Any climate plan worth its salt needs to take these inequities into account.”