Whoever Barack Obama's Audience Was, It Wasn't People From Tuvalu

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Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell - Getty Images
Photo credit: Jeff J Mitchell - Getty Images

Barack Obama gave a speech on Monday to the Climate Summit in Glasgow. He began with a self-deprecating riff about the life of a former president that did honor to his basic humanity—which, God help us, was in short supply from 2016 to 2020.

I am a private citizen now so trips like this feel a little bit different than they used to. I don’t get invited to the big group photo. Traffic is a thing again. Music doesn’t play when I walk into the room. On the positive side, I can give a speech like this without wearing a tie and not create a scandal back home. I hope. But even though I’m not required to attend summits like this anymore, old habits die hard.

He then moved along to tossing an elbow or two in the direction of his successor and the political party he still dominates.

Now, back in the United States of course, some of our progress stalled when my successor decided to unilaterally pull out of the Paris Agreement in his first year in office. I wasn’t real happy about that…Joe Biden wanted to do even more. He’s constrained by the absence of a robust majority that’s needed to make that happen. Both of us have been constrained in large part by the fact that one of our two major parties has decided not only to sit on the sidelines, but express active hostility toward climate science and make climate change a partisan issue.

This was in the middle of a pitch for the current president’s double-tracked infrastructure strategy, especially its elements dealing with the climate crisis. It was here that I notice that his self-deprecation had drawn no laughs, and his jabs at the previous administration had drawn no applause. He then took a strange and unexpected turn into the rhetoric that had won him the White House. Suddenly, we were back in Boston, at the 2004 Democratic National Conventions, dreaming dreams of a country where there were no blue states or red states.

There are times where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late and images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams. And yet whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards. We can’t afford hopelessness.

I agree. All sensible people do. But there’s an urgency to the moment, a fierce urgency of now, as it were, unlike any urgency humanity has faced in a long time. That’s why so many people were outside in the streets, young people from small places, places gutted by the extraction industries, places perilously close to disappearing under the waves. What the moment doesn’t call for is this.

And finally, let me say, it will not be enough to simply mobilize the converted. It will not be enough to preach to the choir. It will not be enough to just ramp up intensity among people who already know about climate change and already agree with us and care deeply about it. Protests are necessary to raise awareness. Hashtag campaigns can spread awareness. But to build the broad based coalitions necessary for bold action, we have to persuade people who either currently don’t agree with us or are indifferent to the issue.

And to change the minds of those fellow citizens in our respective countries, we have to do a little more listening. We can’t just yell at them or say they’re ignorant. We can’t just tweet at them. It’s not enough to inconvenience them through blocking traffic in a protest. We actually have to listen to their objections and understand the reluctance of some ordinary people to see their countries move too fast on climate change. We have to understand their realities and work with them so that serious action on climate change doesn’t adversely impact them.

At this point, he might as well have been talking about why “wokeness” cost Democrats the governorship of Virginia.

I’m talking about the fact that we’ve got to persuade the guy who has to drive to his factory job every single day, can’t afford a Tesla, and might not be able to pay the rent or feed his family if gas prices go up. We have to think about the mother in India, who yes, will suffer droughts and floods made worse by climate change, but whose more immediate concern is getting electricity so her children don’t have to sit in the dark every night and can’t do their homework. That’s not a… You can’t dismiss that concern.

Of course, children don’t die if they don’t do their homework. They die from floods and droughts, from mega-storms sweeping into the Bay of Bengal, and from the epidemic disease that inevitably follows.

There are workers and communities that still depend on coal for power and jobs. And yes, they are concerned about maintaining their wages. That’s not unreasonable for them to be concerned about that. And the fact is, the truth is that transitioning from dirty energy to clean energy does have a cost. And it is not unreasonable for people who often are already economically vulnerable, and maybe don’t feel particularly politically powerful. It’s not unreasonable for them to think that for all the high highfalutin’ talk, some of those costs of transition will be bourne by them. Not by the more powerful and the privileged.

This, to be sure, was classic Obama: decent, considerate, and overwhelmingly humane. All of the things that have made him a blessing on our public life for the past 20 years. But, outside the hall, there were young people talking about how environmental activists are being killed in Central and South America for fighting against foreign corporations, whose activities intensify all the worst elements of the climate crisis. There were representatives of the Indigenous people of North America, for whom water is an existential issue.

And tomorrow, Simon Kofe, the foreign minister of Tuvalu, will address the gathering in Glasgow. He couldn’t make it in person, so he taped a message to the summit remotely from back home…standing in three feet of water. From CNBC:

“The statement juxtaposes the COP26 setting with the real-life situations faced in Tuvalu due to the impacts of climate change and sea level rise and highlights the bold action Tuvalu is taking to address the very pressing issues of human mobility under climate change,” Kofe explained ahead of the broadcast of his video message, per a Reuters report.

Tuvalu, which is about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii, is made up of nine small islands and has a population of around 12,000. Its tourism website, Timeless Tuvalu, warns that by the end of the century it could be under water. School pupils are learning about the effects of climate change and “could be the last generation of children to grow up in Tuvalu,” the website states, adding that many people have already emigrated to New Zealand.

Whoever it was that was Barack Obama’s audience on Monday, they don’t live in Tuvalu.

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