The Tuesday


Barack Obama Graces Glasgow

Former President Barack Obama gives a speech during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, November 8, 2021. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Obama was in his familiar archbishop mode, preaching against the sins of the people.

Kevin Williamson is reporting this week from the U.N. climate-change conference. In case you missed it, here’s his latest column from Glasgow, in lieu of his regularly scheduled Tuesday newsletter.

Glasgow, U.K. — The Biden show came. The Biden show went.

One indicator of how nonseriously the world takes the Biden administration: President Biden himself came to Glasgow to address COP26, the U.N. climate-change convention/trade show, and the result was — not much. John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special envoy for climate (and that’s how you can tell the Biden administration isn’t serious about climate change) was here, too, and nobody cared, because the big swingin’ Democrat in town was Barack Obama.

Obama got a rock-star welcome, even if he pouted a little about having to wait in traffic like a pleb and about the fact that “music doesn’t play when I walk into the room.” He also repeatedly mispronounced the name of the city in which this show was happening, as though “Glasgow” rhymed with “cow.” The locals here get irritated by that, a little like residents of Nevada who claim never to have heard of “Ne-VAH-duh.”

(I know this because I have mispronounced both Glasgow and Nevada.)

Obama was in his familiar archbishop mode, preaching against the sins of the people — “still falling short, collectively and individually,” he said. When he spoke bitterly of his “successor,” the unholy name did not escape his lips.

Obama did what Obama does — his ritualistic approach to the presidency has been followed by an equally ritualistic approach to the post-presidency. He was introduced by Representative Sheila Jack Babauta of the Northern Mariana Islands, who wore a floral coronet and insisted that global warming was the result of “climate colonialism” and could be solved through the application of indigenous folkways: “Our traditional knowledge can guide the way,” she said. This is the sort of thing that would be laughed at if we were talking about the “traditional knowledge” of Quakers in Pennsylvania or Southern Methodists in Michigan. She framed the issue in the by-now familiar neo-pagan terms — “healing Mother Earth” and all that business — and identified Barack Obama as a “son of the Asia-Pacific,” which is a grandiose way of thinking about a guy who is as much a son of Kansas as he is a prep-school punk from the Punahou School.

Like almost everyone else here in Glasgow, Obama spoke about “ambition” and an “ambitious” climate program. Ambition is taken as a good in and of itself here at the commanding heights of global do-goodery, and it is easy to appreciate the attraction for the politician — ambition isn’t subject to hard-and-fast measurement, it doesn’t actually impose any actual obligations, and it doesn’t come with any meaningful deliverables. Obama still believes in “ambition” even as he noted, rightly, that a lot of “ambitious” promises were solemnly exchanged at an earlier COP in Paris, with basically nobody making good on those stated ambitions.

He might as well have said: “Go forth and sin no more.”

And there is no better example of the hollowness of such “ambition” than Barack Obama himself. He signed on to the Paris agreement but did not have the ambition — or, in spite of his considerable political skill, the juice — to actually commit the United States to it by means of a Senate-ratified treaty. Of course, in order to be ratified by the Senate, any climate treaty would have had to have been a good deal less ambitious than the Paris agreement — and so we got an unratified commitment to the more ambitious deal instead of a ratified commitment to a less ambitious deal, which, of course, went right out the window as soon as there was a change in administration. All that unilateral executive-action stuff that seems so sexy in the moment gets changed with the drapes every time there’s a new president.

It is impossible not to read this in religious or quasi-religious terms. What is good is a good intention, “ambition,” the desire to turn away from sin and the occasion of sin. But the climate scientists assure us that a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere is a ton of CO2 in the atmosphere, whether it was produced by a charity soup kitchen or the massive amounts of electricity needed to power the world’s digital-pornography infrastructure. Physics is no respecter of ambition.

Obama has always had a gift for going on the offensive, morally. When he was criticized for his association with racist crackpot Jeremiah Wright, he responded by lecturing Americans at large on their racial shortcomings, as though these were somehow in question. A masterly speech, everyone said, hardly noting that it was a cynical attempt to change the subject. You — you, pilgrim! — need to be more ambitious.

So says Barack Obama, private citizen and private-jet enthusiast, paying a pastoral visit to Glasgow.


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