In Glasgow, Obama hits out at Russia and China’s ‘lack of urgency’ on climate

Former President Obama waving
Former President Obama waves as he arrives Monday at the United Nations summit on climate change in Glasgow, Scotland.
(Jane Barlow / Press Assn.)
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Former President Obama expressed confidence at global climate talks Monday that the Biden administration will ultimately get its $555-billion climate package through Congress, and faulted China and Russia for exhibiting a “dangerous absence of urgency” in cutting their own emissions that affect climate.

“When it comes to climate, time really is running out,” Obama told climate advocates. Though there has been progress since the historic 2015 Paris climate agreement “we are nowhere near where we need to be.”

His comments came as conference leaders acknowledged Monday that many key sticking points exist after a week of talks. A trust gap between rich and poor nations emerged when the negotiations went through a check of what’s been accomplished and what’s left to be done. Developing countries used versions of the word “disappointing” five times when leaders talked Monday about the progress to date.


The United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, is Obama’s first since he helped deliver the triumph of the 2015 Paris climate accord, when nations committed to cutting fossil fuel and agricultural emissions fast enough to keep Earth’s warming below catastrophic levels of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

That celebration has faded and been replaced by worry. Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris accord. President Biden put America back in as soon as he took office this year, but U.S. efforts at fighting climate change were set back years by the Trump move.

The 1.5-degree Celsius goal “is on life support now — it’s in ICU,” said Alden Meyer, a longtime observer of climate talks with E3G, an environmental think tank.

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Obama’s appearance on the sidelines of the talks sought to remind governments of the elation that surrounded the Paris accord, and to urge them to announce more immediate, concrete steps to put the 2015 deal into action.

Obama noted that efforts by the U.S. — the world’s second-worst climate polluter after China — stalled when Trump pulled out of the climate accord.

“I wasn’t real happy about that,” he said, but added that optimism is required to save the planet.


“There are times where I feel discouraged. There are times where the future seems somewhat bleak. There are times where I am doubtful that humanity can get its act together before it’s too late,” Obama said. “We can’t afford hopelessness.”

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Despite opposition within Biden’s own Democratic Party that has blocked the climate change legislation, Obama said he was confident that some version of Biden’s ambitious bill would pass in Congress in the weeks to come.

“It will set the United States on course to meet its new climate targets,” he said.

And although in 2015, rapport between Obama administration negotiators and their Chinese counterparts was seen as paving the way to the global Paris accord, Obama on Monday criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin for not joining other global leaders at the climate talks in Glasgow.

“It was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, decline to even attend the proceedings, and their national plans reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency,” Obama said.

Obama spoke earlier Monday to a session on Pacific Island nations, including ones whose existence is threatened by rising oceans under climate change.

“All of us have a part to play. All of us have work to do. All of us have sacrifices to make” on climate, he said. “But those of us who live in wealthy nations, those of us who helped to precipitate the problem ... we have an added burden.”

The two-week climate talks are at their midpoint, after Biden and scores of other global leaders launched the summit last week with pledges of action and calls for more.

No deals have been made yet on three main goals of the U.N. conference. Those are pledges to cut emissions in half by 2030 to keep alive the Paris deal’s goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius; the need for $100 billion annually in financial help from rich countries to poor ones; and the idea that half of that money should go to adapting to global warming’s worst effects. Several other issues, including transparency and trading carbon, also haven’t been resolved yet.

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Numerous developing nations were pessimistic. They called progress “disappointing” and not near enough.

Representatives of 77 developing nations, along with China, said that until this climate conference fixes the financial pledge for poor nations to cope with climate change, these talks cannot be successful.


Ahmadou Sebory Touré of Guinea, speaking on behalf of poor nations, said rich countries not fulfilling their $100-billion pledge shows that those countries are just making “an empty commitment.”

“There is a history of broken promises and unfulfilled commitments by developed countries,” Diego Pacheco Balanza of Bolivia told the conference.

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Scientists say the urgency of global warming is as great as the dire speeches at Glasgow have conveyed, with the planet only a few years away from the point where meeting the goals set in the Paris accord becomes impossible.

The last few days have seen huge protests in Glasgow and around Europe for faster action in fighting global warming.

Obama told young people that “you are right to be frustrated,” but then relayed the advice his mother gave him when he was young.

“Don’t sulk. Get busy, get to work and change what needs to be changed,” he said. “Vote like your life depends on it — because it does.”