Way back in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama gave a barnstormer of a speech at a fundraiser in Iowa. Quoting Dr Martin Luther King, Jr by highlighting “the fierce urgency of now,” the future Democratic nominee and president promised to “lead the world to combat the common threats of the 21st century,” and promised “those yearning faces beyond our shores” that “your future is our future.”
“Our moment is now!” Obama declared.
It is a sentiment he tried to express again today. Speaking at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, the now-former president and world statesman chided the leaders of yesterday and today for not doing enough to protect tomorrow from the ever-growing threat of climate change. “It’s not just that we can’t afford to go backward,” Obama said. “We can’t afford to stay where we are. The world has to step up and it has to step up now.”
I agree that the world needs to step up and address climate change. I do not, however, share Obama’s trademark optimism that anything of the sort will happen. The truth is that while the former president may understand “the fierce urgency of now,” too many world leaders — from heads of state to politicians to titans of industry and capital — do not. Obama’s soaring rhetoric does nothing to change the fact that world leaders simply are not prepared to make the hard choices to save us from climate change, and no amazing oration is likely to change that.
Watching the former president speak is like watching an episode of The West Wing — it makes you feel good and reminds you of how government should work, but that’s about it. Nothing’s going to change. The call to action and promises made are utterly fictional, whether they’re coming from President Obama or President Bartlett.
It wasn’t always like this, though. Barack Obama understands “the fierce urgency of now” perhaps better than any man on the planet. When he first took office in January 2009, the financial crisis that became known as the Great Recession was at a boiling point. Though the Troubled Asset Relief Program was signed into law by George W. Bush, Obama both championed it as president-elect and extended it towards the end of his first year in office. TARP is largely credited with stabilizing the global economy. That same year he rescued the American auto industry with its own bailout.
Both TARP and the auto bailout were incredibly unpopular with the American people. Obama supported them anyway because he saw that they were necessary. The auto bailout saved 1.5 million American jobs and rescued an industry that many see as vital to our national interests, from the economy to defense. TARP kept the financial crisis from worsening in a domino effect of failed banks and foreclosures.
This history lesson isn’t meant to sing the praises of Obama so much as it is meant to illustrate that inspiring words must be accompanied by bold, sometimes unpopular action. The problem is no one wants to go bold on climate change. Obama certainly didn’t when he was in office; US emissions actually rose under his presidency.
And while the infrastructure bill just passed by House Democrats is estimated to cut US emissions by 30 percent of their 2005 level by the dawn of the next decade, that is hardly impressive. Not only was 2005 16 years ago and 2030 is nine years away, but Biden promised to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2030. So, we’re moving the goalposts in the wrong direction.
Furthermore, without international cooperation, none of this matters. The US is the second-largest emitter of CO2, but the leaders of China and Russia — the first and fourth biggest polluters, respectively — didn’t even bother to show up to Glasgow. Without their agreement, nothing decided at COP26 will make much of a difference — and even then, what is likely to be decided will be woefully inadequate to actually reducing global emissions or mitigating the effects of climate change in the coming decades.
Then there is the fact that nothing that happens at this conference is binding. Every nation there could pledge to completely eliminate CO2 emissions, but without any way to enforce that pledge, it is simply empty rhetoric. We’ve seen this before; time and again nations fail to live up to their commitments, and time and again we are left scrambling to protect the planet from the reckless abandon of capital.
Perhaps that is what is most infuriating about watching President Obama, the poster child of global liberalism, giving such an inspiring and beautiful speech at what is now the 26th UN Climate Change Conference. It’s just empty rhetoric. Beautifully written and powerfully delivered, but utterly devoid of any actual meaning.
The emptiness of these promises shows COP26 — and the future COP27, COP28, COP129 — for the farce that it is. This is not a serious attempt to solve the climate crisis. It’s a chance for world leaders to pat themselves on the back for doing barely anything in the past and pledge to do stuff they’ll never do in the future. Obama is famed for inspiring hope, but today his words ring hollow.
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