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Obama tells young climate change activists to 'harness that anger'

·Senior Climate Editor
·6-min read
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GLASGOW, Scotland — Former President Barack Obama made a plea to young people to adopt a more conciliatory approach to climate change activism on Monday.

“It will not be enough to simply mobilize the converted,” Obama warned. “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 care deeply about it.”

Speaking at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Obama devoted a substantial portion of his nearly hourlong speech to addressing not the delegates watching in person, but the younger generation of viewers online.

Barack Obama.
Barack Obama at a roundtable meeting at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“The most important energy for this movement is coming from young people,” he said — the first line he delivered that received significant applause. “They have more at stake in this fight than anybody else. That’s why I want to spend the rest of my time talking directly to young people who may be watching and wondering what they can do to help.”

It was a maneuver that harked back to his swift rise in national politics and his upset 2008 Democratic primary victory over then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, which was largely powered by the enthusiasm of young voters. What distinguished Obama from Clinton and his other rivals at the time was not policy substance, on which his views were similar to other mainstream Democrats, but his approach to politics. He emphasized hopefulness and argued that democratic engagement from once-disillusioned younger voters could overcome partisan gridlock.

He returned to those same themes on Monday in Glasgow.

“You’ve been bombarded with warnings about what the future will look like if you don’t address climate change,” Obama said to his young viewers. “And, meanwhile, you’ve grown up watching many of the adults who are in a position to do something about it either acting like the problem doesn’t exist or refusing to make the hard decisions needed to do something about it. That’s a source of real anxiety and anger at older people.”

But, he argued, that frustration should be channeled into productive action. His mother, he said, would give him the following advice: “If I was feeling anxious or angry or depressed or scared, she’d look at me and say, ‘Don't sulk; get busy, get to work, and change what needs to be changed.’ And, luckily, that’s exactly what young people around the world are doing right now.”

Greta Thunberg holds a fist aloft and a microphone in the other hand while standing before an audience of people and cameras.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at George Square after joining demonstrators during the Fridays for Future COP26 Scotland March in Glasgow on Friday. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

“The world is full of Gretas,” he added, referring to Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish activist who started the movement of student strikes for climate action.

Yahoo News spoke to a number of young climate activists attending the Glasgow conference, including ones from Malawi, Argentina, the Philippines, Kenya, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Obama’s first piece of concrete advice to a demographic that often lags in electoral turnout is to vote.

“This is part of your power that you have to use,” he said. “Don’t think you can afford to ignore politics. You don’t have to be happy about it, but you can’t ignore it. You can’t be too pure for it.”

He then encouraged using one’s power as a consumer and an employee.

“The second way you can have an impact on climate change is by pressuring companies to do the right thing,” Obama said. “Members of your generation have already shown that you are willing to pay for products that are responsible and responsive to the climate challenge, and that you are also willing to avoid those companies that are actually making climate change worse. … That’s a message CEOs will learn to understand.”

He went on to urge younger people to educate and persuade older members of society on the importance of combating climate change.

And, finally, he urged them to engage constructively with the unconverted.

Protesters at a rally hold signs reading: Diversify your sources of information; Stop fossil fuels, act now; and Energy poverty sucks.
A rally organized by the COP26 Coalition on Saturday in Glasgow demanding global climate justice. (Jane Barlow/PA Wire via AP Photo)

“Protests are necessary to raise awareness,” Obama said. “Hashtag campaigns can raise awareness. But to build the broad-based coalitions necessary for bold action, we have to persuade people who either currently do not agree with us or are indifferent to the issue.”

“To change the minds of those fellow citizens in our respective countries, we have to do a little more listening,” he added. “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 them and their objections.”

Just two days after the conclusion of a series of largely youth-led protests that tended to assign blame for the climate crisis to corporate greed, fossil fuel companies and cowardly politicians, Obama argued that the reluctance of average citizens to risk economic disruption is an understandable concern that must be taken seriously.

“I’m talking about the fact that we’ve got to persuade the guy driving 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,” he said. “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 do their homework. You can’t dismiss that concern.”

Delegates sit at a long table on stage before a seated audience at the U.N. Climate Change Conference.
Delegates at the Improving the Scale and Effectiveness of Adaptation Finance session at COP26 on Monday. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

It was an unusual lecture at a conference where most politicians say only flattering things about young climate protesters, if they say anything about them at all.

Ultimately, Obama said, the righteous anger of young climate activists is beneficial to the effort to combat climate change, but how much depends on how it is deployed.

“I want you to stay angry,” he concluded. “I want you to stay frustrated. But harness that anger.”

Global temperatures are on the rise and have been for decades. Step inside the data and see the magnitude of climate change.

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