Speaking in Milan on Tuesday at the Global Food Innovation Summit, Barack Obama — who was introduced as “the man that gave us hope, dreams and made us become better people” — told the crowd he forgot his tie. In a display of his post-presidency cool, he opted instead for a dress shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest. He appeared relaxed, sun-kissed, and, as always, supremely confident. You would too, if you were about to rake in a reported $3 million to give a speech and then have a chat with your former chef.
While the four-day event this week aims to “bring food and technology together,” Obama was there to talk about climate change. As the Trump administration seriously considers withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the former president is ratcheting up the pressure for the U.S. to stay tethered to his signature international agreement.
In his opening remarks, Obama claimed that “for all the challenges we face, this is the one that will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than any other.” He blamed climate change for everything from weather conditions in America (“where states are seeing floods on sunny days, where wildfire seasons are longer and more dangerous”) to the EU’s influx of migrants, which he claimed was caused not only by the conflict in Syria, but also by “food shortages that will get far worse as climate change continues.” (He later said the strain that climate refugees have put on the EU’s political system is “just the beginning.”)
That wouldn’t be the only humanitarian tragedy that Obama would attribute to man-made climate change during his appearance. He also blamed the phenomenon for making food production more difficult. “We’ve already seen shrinking yields and spiking food prices that in some cases are leading to political instability.” But for most of the world outside, say, Venezuela or North Korea, this is simply not the case. Yields continue to rise in every major crop. High food prices, scarcity, and hunger are almost always the result of failed government and economic systems, not the methane emissions of cows.
And yet Obama seemed unsure of his own message. For at the same time, he added, producing food is also a major cause of climate change: “Food production is the second-leading driver of GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions . . . and if we don’t change course, the World Bank predicts that by 2050, agriculture and land use change may account for as much as 70 percent of global GHG emissions.” In short, we aren’t making enough food because of climate change . . . but making all this food is causing climate change.
Obama also seemed to contradict himself on the effectiveness of the Paris climate accord. Although he repeatedly defended it, he acknowledged that “even if every country somehow puts the brakes on the emissions that exist today, climate change would still have an impact on our world for years to come.” Then again, he said, “if we act boldly and swiftly . . . in favor of the air that our young people will breathe,” then “it won’t be too late.” Act boldly now so our kids can live their dreams . . . in a world that still has climate change.
Obama then sat down for a lengthy Q&A with his former White House chef, Sam Kass, who is living proof that anyone can end up working in the White House and parlay that into undeserved fame and fortune. During this segment, the former commander-in-chief displayed his usual smugness, riffing on how he became such a great leader and lecturing the audience that “you get the politicians you deserve.”
We aren’t making enough food because of climate change . . . but making all this food is causing climate change.
He also freewheeled climate change facts: “Ninety-nine percent of scientists who study climate change carefully . . . will tell you that it is indisputable that the planet is getting warmer and the only real controversy is how much warmer will it get.” Apparently that whole thing about his slowing the rise of the oceans didn’t happen. As for his home state of Hawaii, Obama said, “we are already almost certainly anticipating a three-foot rise in the oceans. At the high end, it could be ten feet. Or 16 feet.” He also said if temperatures only go up a degree or two, “we can manage,” a comment sure to set the climate tribe into panic over over his acknowledgement that a few degrees here or there won’t cause the planet’s demise.
At the same time, he also had some redeeming moments. He gave a strong defense of genetically modified food and how emerging technologies such as gene editing can improve the global food supply. He defended farmers, saying “it’s hard work.” He strayed from the mantra of the foodies (like Kass) who had such influence under his administration, and admitted we shouldn’t just tell people how to eat for their health: “We don’t want to create a society in which you can only eat things that are good for you. Once in a while, you should be able to eat because it tastes good.” I’ll drink to that.
Some people, even in the administration, might be looking for a convincing case about why we should remain in the Paris climate pact, but the former president didn’t make it in Milan. Instead, Obama’s comments were yet another example of the kind of meandering, vague, and contradictory collection of hypothetical scenarios that the climate tribe loves to peddle. And yet again, they will fail to persuade a majority of Americans we need to take the dire actions that set demands. I hope Ivanka and Jared were watching.