Barack Obama tells COP26: Islands are ‘canaries in the coalmine’ of climate change

Former US president Barack Obama attending the Cop26 summit in Glasgow
Former US president Barack Obama attending the Cop26 summit in Glasgow

The former president said not enough has been done to combat climate change and called for united action


Former US president Barack Obama has told the COP26 climate summit that island nations are the “canaries in the coalmine” of climate change and are sending a message on the need for urgent action.

Speaking as the talks enter their second week, he said not enough has been done to combat climate change and called for united action.

Mr Obama, who arrived in Glasgow on Sunday night, said larger nations should shoulder more of the burden of fixing the climate crisis – as a theme of the talks on Monday is support for poorer countries to cope with the problem.

He said: “In many ways, islands are the canary in the coalmine in this situation.

“They are sending a message now that if we don’t act then it’s going to be too late.”

He added: “All of us have a part to play, all of us have work to do and all of us have sacrifices to make.

“Those of us who live in big, wealthy nations, those of us who helped to precipitate the problem, we have an added burden to make sure that we are working with and helping and assisting those who are less responsible and less able, but are more vulnerable to this oncoming crisis.”

A veteran of the failed UN climate summit in Copenhagen and the successful meeting in Paris which secured the world’s first comprehensive climate treaty, Mr Obama was speaking at an event by COP26 organisers the UNFCCC on island resilience.

Calling for more action and for countries to stick to the pledges they have made in Glasgow and previously, he said: “It’s important for us to recognise as was true five years ago we have not done enough.”

The Hawaiian native said he is an “island kid” and ended his speech quoting a Hawaiian saying which he said roughly translates as “unite to move forward”.

Mr Obama alluded to his successor as US president, Donald Trump, as he sought to convince people his country was genuine in its efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

He said: “The politics in the United States are not always easy, as you may have noticed, and my successor maybe wasn’t as interested in climate science as I was, it turned out.

“But there are a lot of people in the US government who care about this deeply and work really hard and are invested.”

Mr Obama added that while “sometimes it may feel like the United States” is not following through on commitments or moving as fast as some people would like, it is “not for lack of trying” by delegates at COP26.

“It’s one of the things about democracy – it turns out you don’t always get your way,” he said. “But two cheers for democracy as they say. I think that was Mr Churchill who said that.”

He is expected to attend several events on Monday, including a speech laying out the progress made in the five years since the Paris Agreement took effect, highlighting the leadership of young people around the globe and urging more robust action from governments, the private sector, philanthropy and civil society.

Earlier, COP26 president Alok Sharma said countries must deliver on commitments made in the past week.

Ministers are arriving for the political stage of the negotiations after leaders and countries signed up to a range of initiatives last week from tackling deforestation to curbing coal power and cutting methane to prevent dangerous global warming.

Mr Sharma said finding consensus among almost 200 countries – needed for agreement under the UN climate system – was not going to be straightforward but progress last week demonstrated a “constructive spirit” among negotiators.

The announcements countries made last week are not necessarily included in their national plans for action this decade, which leaves the world far off track on meeting the internationally-agreed goal of trying to limit global warming to 1.5C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

Negotiators are trying to hammer out a “cover decision” from Glasgow that will set out how countries will close the gap between the action plans to cut emissions in this decade and what is needed to avoid temperature rises of more than 1.5C.

Vulnerable countries are pushing for nations to revisit their plans, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), annually to close the gap, but others are pushing back against speeding up the process from its five-yearly cycle.

Mr Sharma said: “Here in Glasgow we have a unique opportunity to reach a historic outcome and I am committed to bringing countries together to forge an agreement that means we see more action this decade, which helps to keep the 1.5C temperature limit within reach.”

He said there was a need for urgency in the negotiations and warned: “Last week countries made commitments which will all help to protect our planet but they must be delivered on and accounted for.”

Making sure countries increase ambition this decade is one of the issues up for debate, along with finance for poorer countries to develop cleanly and cope with climate impacts, and funding for them to deal with loss and damage.

Ministers also need to hammer out the last parts of the Paris Agreement – under which countries agreed in 2015 to limit temperature rises to “well below” 2C, or 1.5C to prevent the worst impacts of warming – to make it operational.

On Monday, countries will meet for a presidency update on the past week and progress of the negotiations.

Mr Sharma said that on Monday the spotlight would be on those nations that were most vulnerable – which would still suffer negative consequences from rising temperatures even if pollution stopped tomorrow – and they would be so throughout the negotiations.

“They, and the generations to come, will not forgive us if we fail to deliver in Glasgow.”