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Barack Obama’s message to young people at COP26: “Stay angry”

U.S. former President Barack Obama delivers a speech during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow
REUTERS/Phil Noble
“The most important energy in this movement is coming from young people. They have more stake in this fight than anybody else. “

When former US president Barack Obama took the stage at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Nov. 8, he was contrite.

“Meaningful progress has been made since Paris,” he said, referencing the 2015 summit that he oversaw in his penultimate year in office. “What is also true is that collectively and individually we are still falling short. We have not done nearly enough to address this crisis.”

Obama’s remarks came two days after more than 100,000 people marched through cold rain in the streets of Glasgow, led by Greta Thunberg and other youth activists, to demand more concrete and urgent action on climate change. The first week of COP26 was packed with flashy announcements, but countries’ stated climate plans still aren’t on track to limit warming to 1.5 C, and climate finance commitments are hundreds of billions of dollars short. In the summit’s second week, government delegates will be focused on nitty-gritty details of carbon markets and other lingering issues.

For much of his speech, Obama spoke directly to young people, often acknowledging their anger: “For most of your lives you’ve been bombarded with warnings about what the future will look like if you don’t address climate change, but you see adults who act like the problem doesn’t exist,” he said. “You are right to be frustrated. Folks in my generation have not done enough to deal with a potentially cataclysmic problem that you now stand to inherit.”

As a way to harness the anger and frustration, Obama offered four concrete tips for how young people can use their power to advance the climate cause:

🗳️ Don’t give up on politics: “Vote like your life depends on it, because it does.” While expressing the importance of the political process in making progress towards preventing global warming, he acknowledged that young people have little faith in politics: “You don’t have to like it, but you can’t ignore it.”

🛒 Pressure companies: “Companies will lose customers and top-flight employees if they’re not on the right side of this issue.” Corporations care about the bottom line, so young people can use their purchasing power to demand change. “Members of your generation have shown you are willing to pay for products that are responsive to the climate challenge,” he said.

📗 Teach your family and your loved ones about the issue: “If you explain how important the issue is to you, you may lead them to rethink their position, or at least be more open minded.” Obama reminded youth that while they have been raised in a world that is acutely aware of the climate challenge, members of the older generation were not. They do not have the same frame of reference.

👂 Listen to others: “It will not be enough to simply mobilize the converted. It will not be enough to preach to the choir.” He stressed the importance of building a broad-based coalition, and in order to do so, to compassionately listen to those with different opinions, and life experiences. “The people most affected by the transition can’t bear most of the cost. Any climate plan worth its salt needs to keep these inequalities into account,” he said.

“I want you to stay angry,” Obama urged, finally. “I want you to stay frustrated. Keep pushing for more and more. Because that’s required to meet this challenge. Gird yourself for a marathon, not a sprint.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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