At least when it comes to fighting climate change. And at least when you judge the country as a whole and not just what’s going on in Washington, where the president’s climate agenda just got a big cut in Congress.
It’s an extremely unusual appearance by a former president at a world leaders’ event, but Obama aides and friends told CNN the former president wanted to help Biden regain global trust in US leadership. on this issue and get the global alliance back on track after four years of Trump.
Obama “has a global audience,” said John Podesta, who has worked on climate issues at the Obama White House and remains in contact with the former president. “Poll after poll, young people in particular are desperate to know if democracy can work, if politicians are up to the task. They see Obama as an inspiration and who says it as it is.
Obama’s presence at COP26 began with suggestions from climate activists. But it really took shape in a conversation with John Kerry, his former secretary of state and Biden’s special presidential climate envoy, people familiar with the conversations told CNN.
The White House was eager to receive help, officials said, requesting anonymity to discuss the behind-the-scenes conversations.
Yet Obama’s trip doesn’t just reflect recognition in the White House of Biden and beyond for the decline in international trust in America during the Trump years. It also reflects an awareness of how much more Obama connects with people around the world, even now as a former president, than Biden does as president currently in the Oval Office.
Even when Obama was at his peak in America, he was still far more popular abroad, his election seeming symbolic of the global superpower embracing internationalism and a new generation looking to the future. Obama remains the inspiring figure around the world, especially among young people to whom he will devote much of his time in Scotland. In coordination with his own foundation and the Climate School at Columbia University, he will host a roundtable with young activists (many of whom are alumni of his global scholarship programs) and urge business leaders to step up their own investments. in clean energy.
A State Department official called Obama “among our strongest global advocates for action,” adding that he would be “a welcome voice” to describe the rare team approach for two presidents.
“Can you keep your word? “
Biden hopes to come across as more than an ambitious speech and empty promises. Obama hopes to come across as more than a geopolitical celebrity, and instead he throws away his credibility and popularity to support Biden. This is especially the case when the president tries to convince the country and the world to view the $ 500 billion in funding that survived the congressional infrastructure negotiations as a success, not a failure on the grounds of brevity. of its original purpose.
A lot of people think it might work. But after Trump, they have doubts.
“Obama was one of the architects of the Paris Agreement and President Biden has confirmed that the United States is fully committed to climate action,” said Carolina Schmidt, Chile’s Minister of the Environment and President of the latest meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP), held in 2019 at a time of intense international panic over Trump’s policies guided by his plot claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax. Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing from the Paris Accords, which hinged on country-by-country commitments to reduce carbon emissions through government action. Biden reinstated the deal during one of his first moves to power.
But, added Schimdt, “We need not only leaders, but concrete commitments from each country – but above all from major emitters – following signs of being carbon neutral by 2050 at the latest. In that sense. , all of the United States’ commitments in helping to reach these global agreements are good news. ”
After asking to speak anonymously, a European Union diplomat was more direct about how Biden’s difficulties in pushing his agenda through Congress were viewed, even with the coming of the current and former president in Scotland.
“It’s great to see the United States come back to the forefront of the global climate fight. But what you achieve nationally is just as important as what you bring to the table internationally,” said the diplomat. “So the international pressure is great and without all of these additional diplomatic efforts we would certainly be in a worse situation, but there remains a lingering question: can you follow the rhetoric? “
Biden was chosen as running mate in 2008, in part to bolster Obama’s lack of foreign experience and credibility at the time. Now the tables are turned and Obama will be the one to back Biden. Be careful not to overshadow Biden, however, Obama won’t arrive at the COP until November 8, a week after Biden’s own appearance at the event, starting this Monday. This timing has been carefully sequenced: Obama will deliver an official speech to the assembled diplomats, but it will be after most of the world leaders have left.
Podesta helped lead Obama’s White House efforts for the Paris climate accords in 2015 and was one of the climate activists who urged the former president to attend the COP that year to help defend his case. He said there were critical messages Obama is uniquely positioned to deliver on America’s reaffirmation after Trump, but also on how local efforts to tackle climate change have continued to states. -United even when Trump withdrew from the international agreement.
“Even with someone furiously trying to go in the opposite direction, the United States has stayed the course because people of goodwill in local offices and in governors’ residences across the country have stepped up, and they kept us on track, ”Podesta said. “It’s a different story than, ‘Oh, you can’t trust the United States because they elected Trump. “You hear that a lot. And that’s the other way of looking at it.”
As Obama heads to Scotland, his foundation is releasing documents on his own work to bring the international climate conversation to this point. This includes a video he recounts, repeating his appearance at the COP15 conference in Copenhagen in the first year of his presidency, in which an international climate agreement failed, and follows the diplomatic work that ‘he led for the remainder of his presidency. , which resulted in the Paris Agreements. Making an argument that he will take up in Scotland, he says in the video, “Paris gives us the means to make the necessary changes, but what is still needed is the will and activism of the citizens pushing forward. their governments to be ambitious. ”
There is also an oral history of climate work that ends with Obama and some of the collaborators most involved in the Paris negotiations addressing “The Work That Remains”.
“A testament to, I think, his resilience was the fact that my successor in the White House unilaterally decided to withdraw from the Paris accords – and yet, despite what could have been a huge symbolic blow that did collapsing the whole deal, every other country in the world clung to it, “Obama said in this story.” So even though we were on the sidelines, all the other big countries said no, we will continue. And now we have a US government that is once again ready to take leadership in this process. ”
“He knows he’s passing the baton,” said Podesta, who is also part of this oral history, “but he knows he has an important role.”