With all eyes on the United Nation’s Committee of the Parties 25 (COP25) climate meeting in Madrid last week, one couldn’t be blamed for missing the reports of former President Obama’s remarks to an audience of young Asian leaders in Kuala Lumpur. The occasion was a conference hosted by his foundation.
What Mr. Obama had to say helped clarify for me why his climate legacy is barely spoken of by today’s youth activists or the Democratic Party’s crop of presidential candidates—including his own vice-president.
Predictably, Mr. Obama was asked by his young audience to comment on the Paris Climate Agreement (Agreement), offer his insights on the Madrid meeting, and recommend ways forward from today.
As reported by AP News and other reliable outlets, Mr. Obama admitted that the global response to the climate emergency was already too little, too late for the world not to have already experienced some of the adverse effects of Earth’s warming:
…there’s gonna have to be some adaptation that’s going to take place. The oceans will be rising, and that is going to displace people. And so, we’re going to anticipate and care for some of the consequences of that, including large-scale migration and disruptions that are going to be very costly.
The former president also spoke of his satisfaction in knowing that just by setting up the mechanism (the Agreement), we had created the ability to [over time] turn up the standards, turn up the demands. Send a signal to businesses so that they started investing in more clean energy because they saw change coming.
It’s hard to quarrel with the former president on the need for adaptive measures and resiliency assistance. Droughts, rising waters, and heated temperatures are already sparking climate-forced migrations.
The World Bank estimates that by 2050 there will be 140 million new migrants in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Although many of the migrations will be within countries, more will ultimately be between nations.
It’s equally hard to imagine just what nations will be willing to do for populations severely impacted by Earth’s warming given the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiments—particularly in Europe, Australia, and the United States. Moreover, in the just concluded Madrid climate summit small and developing countries accused the United States and others, such as Brazil and Australia, of obstructing critical parts of the negotiations and undermining the spirit and goals of the Paris accord. Goals which, in addition to holding global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius, include increasing the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, and at making finance flows consistent with low GHG emissions and climate-resilient pathway.
President Obama addressed his young Kuala Lumpur audience at a time when, according to Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute, the can-do spirit that birthed the Paris agreement had already left the building. She spoke of the signing of the Agreement a scant four years ago as a distant memory.
In the shadow of the Madrid summit, Obama reminisced of past achievements and told his audience:
Your voice, your witness…is a moral call to the rest of the world… figuring out how to tell the story of what you are seeing, and the losses that are already taking place, that’s going to be important.
We take two steps forward. We take one step back … but the trajectory has been positive. And the best we can then do is just do our work and try to advance it as best we can. Understanding that we will not finish the job.
Most of the time, the way the world’s gotten to where we are now is small incremental victories, not big sweeping victories all at once. (emphasis added)
When reading those words my reaction was to say “OK Boomer”—to a man for whom I have the utmost respect—using a phrase for which I have the utmost contempt.
But really Mr. Obama, is this what you want to tell today’s climate defenders—young or old? Is taking two-steps forward and one back really the best we can do? Have two steps forward even been taken since the 2015 signing of the Paris Agreement?
The Trump administration has ripped the Obama climate legacy to shreds. It has its sights set on the environmental accomplishments of the Nixon administration should Trump be elected to a second term.
Next year at this time, the nation will mark the 50th anniversary of the Clean Air Act of 1970 (Act). Having been challenged in court hundreds—if not thousands of times—the Act has stood the test of time as both bulwark and foundation. Without it, the nation would stand bare before polluters and their political supporters.
The need to act is dire; more to the point—it’s time to stop playing defense. It is possible to recognize the reality of two steps forward and one back, without resigning ourselves to its limits.
Never in the 40 years I’ve spent in Washington as an advocate of clean power and a sustainable environment, do I remember a time when there has been such a growing national groundswell of support for the protection of the environment. Never once in that time can I recall any integrated energy and environmental vision for America having been put forward by any administration.
Two-steps forward and one back in the absence of a grand plan are only random steps—sometimes in the same direction, sometimes not—often in opposition to each other.
Two things prevented the “Boomer” generation from moving the nation closer than it now is to a low-carbon economy. The first was having available clean energy sources that were economically competitive with fossil fuels. The second was widespread voter support.
Needed energy and environmental technologies are here now, with more are on their way. These technologies are today delivering power at a scale and cost only dreamt of a decade ago. The future of clean energy is bright.
Technology has opened a vast global network of communications at a scale and speed also never dreamt of back in the day. A little more than a year ago, a solitary figure stood outside her government’s parliament with a handwritten sign of protest. Millions of students have since heard Greta Thunberg’s message and followed her lead. Her inspirational leadership has earned her such accolades as the Nobel peace prize, the title of Time’s person of the year, and the jealousy of a denier-in-chief.
Along with the rise of student strikes, has been the election of young progressive lawmakers. Their vision has eclipsed anything that has so far made it onto the political stage and is sparking enough political energy to shake the foundations of the US Chamber of Commerce and even of some conservative coal-state lawmakers. Not only have they been shaken to the point where they are unwilling to risk calling climate change nothing more than a few unseasonably warm days. They have been stirred to action.
Now is the time when the generations need to feed off each other’s strengths. Who knows, by blending the enthusiasm and broad vision of the young with the experience of the old we soon might be able to take three steps forward and none back.