Barack Obama has issued perhaps his most personal plea yet to overcome the existential threat posed by climate change.
The US president gave two major speeches on climate change in the space of a day, one in Nevada and another in Hawaii, after Air Force One managed to safely dodge two hurricanes lurking in the Pacific.
“No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune from a changing climate,” Obama told an audience of Pacific island leaders in Honolulu.
“I saw it myself in our more northernmost state of Alaska, where the sea is swallowing villages and eating away at shorelines, where the permafrost thaws and the tundra is burning. Where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times. It’s a preview of our future if the climate changes faster than our efforts to address it.”
Obama embraced language that would not be out of place from an environmental group, calling on politicians “to be less concerned with special interests and more concerned about the judgment of future generations”. He lamented the “withering” crops in the Marshall Islands and the fact that the government of Kiribati, another low-lying Pacific nation, has purchased land in Fiji to relocate its people due to the rising seas.
The president also suggested that he will devote his energies to dealing with climate change after he leaves the White House. He said he was pleased with last year’s landmark climate accord in Paris but “I will push to build on that record for as long as I occupy this office and even after I leave it.”
It is expected that the US and China will jointly ratify the Paris agreement at the G20 meeting, to be held next week in Hangzhou. The commitment of the world’s two largest emitters of greenhouse gases will provide a hefty shove to getting all major economies to sign up by the end of the year.
The urgency of a worldwide effort to lower emissions has been underscored by a year of alarming climate data. Every month since October last year has set a new record for warmth, according to Nasa, with July being the hottest single month since records began. Heatwaves and drought have ravaged areas as diverse as Kuwait, Zimbabwe and California. Temperatures are rising at their fastest rate in at least 1,000 years.
But despite the obvious signs of emergency, including the relocation of American citizens in Louisiana and Alaska due to rising seas that threaten millions of others, climate change has barely registered as an issue in the US presidential election. Trump, on the few occasions when he’s asked about the future health of the planet, has called climate science a “hoax” and has promised to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan and withdraw the US from the Paris deal.
Obama, in a thinly veiled attack on Trump, used his speech in Nevada to decry the flippant attitude to the radical changes occurring in the environment. The president visited the state to talk about Lake Tahoe, which has experienced a degradation of its once-clear waters in recent years.
“The future generations deserve clear water and clean air that will sustain their bodies and sustain their souls – jewels like Lake Tahoe,” Obama said.
“It sure is not going to happen if we pretend a snowball in winter means nothing is wrong. It’s not going to happen if we boast about how we’re going to scrap international treaties, or have elected officials who are alone in the world in denying climate change, or put our energy and environmental policies in the hands of big polluters.”
Later on in the day in Hawaii, Obama said conservation and climate change are “inextricably linked” and noted, to whoops from the audience, that he has protected more land and ocean than Teddy Roosevelt, who was known as the “conservationist president”.
Last week Obama created the world’s largest marine reserve by quadrupling in size the biodiverse Papahānaumokuākea national monument. He will visit Midway Atoll, part of the protected area, on Thursday as NGOs gather in Hawaii for the IUCN congress, a major conservation summit.
Obama spoke at the University of Hawaii, where his parents, Barack Obama Sr and Ann Durham, met. The future president was born, lived and went to school in a one-mile radius of the university, situated near downtown Honolulu. He said he wanted to help ensure that a healthy planet is passed onto the generation of his daughters Malia and Sasha.
“I want to make sure that when they are bringing their children and grandchildren here, they are able to appreciate the wonders and beauty of this island and the Pacific,” he said.
“We’ve got to unite to move forward. We have to row as one. If we do, we might just save the one planet that we’ve got.”
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