Obama Bid To Secure Climate Legacy at Paris COP21

BY KYLA MANDEL AND BRENDAN MONTAGUE IN PARIS

Barack Obama knows COP21 is his legacy moment. His presidency has been book-ended by the two most critical international climate summits – the disastrous Copenhagen and now the hope-filled Paris.

The American president joined 150 world leaders for the opening ceremony on the first day of the UN climate conference in Paris where thousands of delegates hope to agree legally binding international agreements to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Obama went over his allotted three minutes to tell the world future generations would suffer the worst impacts of climate unless the current generation acts. “I believe in the words of Martin Luther King that there is such a thing as being too late. And when it comes to climate change that hour is almost upon us,” he said. 

“But if we act here if we act now, if we place our own short term interests behind the air that our young people will breathe… and the hopes and dreams that sustain their lives then we won’t be too late for them.”

“We can show the world what is possible when we come together,” he said. “Let there be no doubt, the next generation is watching what we do.”

Obama's teenage daughters have helped to make climate change a personal issue over the course of his presidency and today's speech, which emphasised the importance of acting now for the benefit of future generations, appears to have been the result.

The short speech was no Gettysburg Address but did go some way to revive climate promises made when he first ran for office in 2008.

In recent months Obama has ramped up his climate efforts. He has unveiled his Clean Power Plan, vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline, and forged climate partnerships with both China and India.

But he has also courted controversy over promoting shale gas as a transition fuel and allowing Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic.

And the opposition remains strong. Republicans have launched an assault against the Clean Power Plan and memories are still fresh of the US legislative branch torpedoing the Kyoto climate deal.

This is why Obama is seeking a non-legally binding climate deal – so as to avoid the necessity of putting it to a vote in a Republican-majority Senate.

Obama was not blind to the challenges when he first entered office. But he may have underestimated the opposition’s strength – and trying to tackle climate change all the while seeking to rebuild a broken economy is no easy feat.

But speaking in Paris today, he told the world: “We have broken the old arguments for inaction. We’ve proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conlifct with each other. They can work in concert with one another and that should give us hope.”

So now, in the final year of his final term, Obama has picked up the climate baton once again.


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This pattern of politicians promoting climate action at the beginning and end of one’s term – often with little mentioned in between – is not unique to Obama.

Perhaps most notable is former vice president Al Gore who has taken on the climate crusade after leaving office.

And in the UK, Ed Miliband is perhaps the best illustration of this. He too remembers witnessing the failures of Copenhagen in 2009 and he was largely responsible for securing Britain’s Climate Change Act in 2008. But then throughout the coalition government and even during last May’s election, climate took a back seat to other priorities.

Now, no longer the leader of the Labour party and Miliband has been impressively pushing for a strong deal in Paris.

Tony Blair also famously took on the issue at the end of his term in 2008. Blair’s statements pushed climate onto the election stage that year/the next year. This is when we saw David Cameron forced to pick up the narrative and pledge to be the greenest conservative government ever. But just over six months into his second term and Cameron’s government is far from going green.

So as politicians gather in Paris to seal a climate deal will Obama’s legacy be secured? Will we see Cameron step up to the plate? These next two weeks will reveal the leaders and the laggards.