Analysis: Barack Obama may have given COP26 the inspirational jolt it needs

It was a speech fearful of mankind’s ultimate failure, flecked with references to dystopian visions and dark doubts. Yet beyond the gathering clouds were rays of hope, each imbued with an unfailing faith in the human spirit.

Does Barack Obama believe the world can avert the climate catastrophe? Undoubtedly. Make no mistake – doing so will be an arduous and, at times, seemingly impossible pursuit.

But it is, he said, a “profound and noble” task. The only question is: are you with him?

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On the first day of the second week of a climate summit still delicately balanced, the former US president sprinkled some stardust over Glasgow, and appealed to the better angels of the world’s nature to act in unison today to secure a better tomorrow.

In the SEC Centre, a venue that has hosted luminaries such as Sir Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and his good friend Bruce Springsteen, Obama outshone them all. All he ever really needed was a microphone and a crowd.

Cutting a relaxed and refreshed presence before the lectern, Obama delivered an address that will not threaten the history books by dint of its oratorical verve.

It lacked the flourishes of his address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and could not rival the emotional punch of the words he conceived to mark the 50th anniversary of the civil rights marches from Selma.

Of course, none of that matters. Not when the stakes are so high. This was not so much a speech as a rallying cry, urging the millions watching on to help inch the world that bit closer to long-term survival.

Former US president Barack Obama addresses the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Picture: Christopher Furlong/GettyFormer US president Barack Obama addresses the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
Former US president Barack Obama addresses the COP26 summit in Glasgow. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty
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But what it did share with the great Obama speeches was an ability to capture the sweep of history, offering a warts-and-all summary of the miles travelled, and the long road that lies ahead.

The 60-year-old spoke of humanity’s flaws and failures, as well as its assets and accomplishments, and articulated a sense of every stalled start, backwards step, and jolt forward that had led to the Glasgow summit.

The past week of talks in the city, he said early on, had brought the “promise of further progress”, as well as the recognition that “collectively and individually, we are still falling short”.

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What followed set the tone. “We are going to have to do more, and whether that happens or not to a large degree is going to depend on you,” he added. “And not just you in this room.”

Here was the kernel of the theme that underpinned the entire speech – the same theme that has defined Obama’s political vision since his formative years in Chicago – the transformative power of participation.

In tone and substance, his address had the same cadence as the farewell speech of his presidency, when he implored the disenchanted and disenfranchised to “lace up your shoes and do some organising”.

That message, delivered in January 2017, was designed to puncture the malaise that had gripped America following Donald Trump’s election victory.

More than four-and-a-half years on, the audience was global, but the message was identical – instead of despairing at the state of the world, why not resolve to help fix it?

The climate crisis, Obama insisted, transcended raw numbers and scientific conclusions.

It is also bound up with politics, culture and morality. “It’s about the human dynamic,” he pressed. “How do we work together to get a big thing done?”

He did not shy away from the fractured political discourse that has contributed to that inaction, criticising the absence of the leaders of China and Russia as showing a “dangerous lack of urgency” over the climate emergency.

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We are in a moment, he said, when “global co-operation has waned”, thanks in no small part to the pandemic, nationalism, tribal impulses and the legacy of a lack of leadership from the US under his much-maligned successor.

But climate change, he insisted, was the one issue that should transcend domestic skirmishes and geopolitical tensions.

“It’s not just that we can’t afford to go backwards,” he explained. “We can’t afford to stay where we are.”

Obama could have been a little more candid about the distinctly patchy record of his homeland on tackling the crisis, particularly when it comes to providing climate finance for the developing world, and was perhaps too generous in his praise for the Joe Biden administration’s achievements.

But such is politics. He spoke with honesty and conviction about his own conflicting emotions, admitting there were occasions when he felt “discouraged” and the future looked bleak.

Sometimes, he told the audience, “I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late”.

As ever, such admissions of weakness prefaced a declaration of strength.

“Whenever I feel such despondency, I remind myself that cynicism is the recourse of cowards,” he said, his voice rising. “We can’t afford hopelessness.”

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There was widespread applause when he observed the most important energy in the climate movement was emanating from young people, and he reserved a sizeable section of his speech for that very demographic.

Reassuring them they were entitled to feel frustrated at climate inaction, he imparted the advice his late mother, Ann Dunham, had once given him. “Don’t sulk,” he said. “Get busy. Get to work and change what needs to be changed.”

When he referenced Othello in his closing stanza to speak of how the planet’s wounds can be healed – not today, tomorrow, or the next day, but “by degrees” – the infectious spirit captured the packed room, and he received a standing ovation.

The years will judge whether his words spur decision makers into action.

Those who remember Obama’s inability to avert disaster at COP15 in Copenhagen have justifiable reason to wonder whether he can truly exert influence on the world stage, especially now that he is a private citizen.

But perhaps, just perhaps, this is what COP26 needed at his midway juncture: a little inspiration, and the sense of what may be possible, if not necessarily probable.

Obama’s greatest gift has always been his ability to empower people and help them realise their potential by uniting behind a single, fluent idea. And ideas don’t come much bigger than saving the world.

Where there were missteps in his speech, they were rare and minor, although a couple proved particularly grating for Scottish audiences.

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Standing on the banks of the Clyde, he referred to being in the “Emerald Isles”, and his pronunciation of the name of Scotland’s biggest city – “Glass cow!” – fell into a now familiar trap.

A city with an unfailing affection for those who stand up for the common man will no doubt forgive Hawaii’s most famous son. After all, have you ever heard a Glaswegian try to pronounce Ulupalakua?

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