President Obama spoke at COP26 yesterday about the power of young people in fight for climate justice.
It’s been nine days since COP26 started, and a number of opening speeches, national statements, discussions and conclusions have been had. Boris Johnson has made a myriad of appearances, bumbled up to the podium and, surprisingly, produced some gems of wisdom amongst the waffle. Biden, contrasting in many ways, has been far more statesman-like, formal and factual with his points, encouraging and emphasising.
But it was only yesterday, eight days in, that a politician has turned up to speak at the podium who appears to actually understand their audience. Not their immediate audience, like the others had clearly prioritised, with their politik-speak and gestures of grandeur that fall flat on lay ears. Instead, Barack Obama was measured, yet mesmerising. He outlined his main points, giving background of good and bad events that had preceded our current standpoint. He explained things easily, every sentence building towards the next, pausing characteristically to help us catch up, speaking semi-conversationally to help it sink in.
He spoke to the people that needed to be heard, particularly young people who, despite the protests on the ground, still feel as though world leaders are refusing to listen to their voices. Starting with positivity, he discussed how, even though his “successor”, Trump, left the Paris Agreement in 2015, progress has still been made, and he referenced the work of John Kerry, first United States special presidential envoy for climate, and Joe Biden. He wasn’t just sugar-coating, though.
“Now for the bad news,” he started. “We are nowhere near where we need to be.” He paused, his voice resonating around the large conference room, audience enraptured. “I must admit, it was particularly disappointing to see two of the world’s largest emitters – Russia and China – decline the invite to this event.”
“I must admit, it was particularly disappointing to see two of the world’s largest emitters – Russia and China – decline the invite to this event.”
But, he went on, despite all the times he’d felt so horribly depressed by the state of the planet, he urged those listening to continue finding the hope in the darkness. “Cynicism is the recourse of callous,” he said. “We can’t afford hopelessness.”
Previous leaders have made reference to the awareness-spreading of climate activists, and Obama was no exception. He dove into it further, praising “the activism of citizens pushing companies, and everyone else, to meet his challenge.”
He appreciated that there are some people, climate deniers, who – for ideological reasons – “express active hostility towards climate science”, and cannot be convinced otherwise. But those are not the people that we should be appealing to, he emphasised. Instead, think about things from the perspectives of people who can’t quite afford to become fully renewable yet: “I can afford to give up a lot of my lifestyle to help the planet. A lot of folks don’t have that cushion.”
“I can afford to give up a lot of my lifestyle to help the planet. A lot of folks don’t have that cushion.”
It wasn’t like other world leaders hadn’t made reference to the working people of the world; it was just that Obama seemed to care. He appeared to understand, he showed he had the awareness that other people living in these conditions did exist, were real people, and had lives and worries of their own. He didn’t group them together necessarily, as “deprived populations”, and didn’t make them faceless objects impossible to empathise with.
His mention of family, too, helped his message resonate. Whilst Boris forces dad jokes and scuffs up his hair to try to relate to the working masses, Obama gets there on a far more authentic level. He discussed his daughters, both early twenties, and the challenges they face. He shows an insight into the lives and learning of younger people, without trying to pretend he knows it all. He talked about how his daughters and their friends are far more conscious of where they’re buying from, aiming for ethical and sustainable consumption where possible. It was a message to corporations, too: “If companies get serious about climate change, they can gain customers and employees.”
But his message for young people, activists or otherwise, rang crystalline clear across the hall. You don’t have to be a Greta Thunberg replica, to commit your life to activism, to save the planet. Instead, talk to the people around you. Educate them. Keep pushing for more. Keeping the conversation going. “Stay angry,” he said. “Use the power you have.”