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'Show us the money!' Young activists react to Barack Obama at COP26

The former president arrived at the summit armed with a message for young people. But they greeted him with a message of their own.

Barack Obama speaks at COP26

Barack Obama speaks at COP26 on Monday.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The red carpet was rolled out for former US President Barack Obama on Monday at COP26. Obama arrived at the UN climate summit taking place in Glasgow, Scotland, and delivered a speech about "what young people in particular can do to help."

But youth climate activists, many of whom have been at the summit for over a week now and taken part in multiple protests over the weekend, were ready to greet the former leader with a message of their own.

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate tweeted that she was 13 years old when Obama had promised $100 billion to developing countries to fight the climate crisis -- a promise, she pointed out, that the US went on to break. Together with her fellow activists, she staged a mini protest, holding up signs saying "show us the money" inside the summit ahead of Obama's speech.

"You want to meet the youth here at the COP?" she said. "We are here waiting for you, we want to talk about the things that matter, we want to talk about the things that pertain to our livelihoods, to our survival. President Obama, show us the money."

The reaction underscores the disillusionment and frustration many young people feel about how governments around the world -- and the US in particular -- have handled the climate crisis. Obama is attending the summit six years after he signed the US up to the Paris Agreement -- a global accord struck by countries agreeing to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the intervening years, the US withdrew from the agreement under President Donald Trump before rejoining the agreement under President Joe Biden. In the meantime, countries around the world have endured worsening hurricanes, floods and forest fires as climate change continues to cause more extreme weather.

Obama hoped to channel those emotions. "To all the young people out there, as well as those of you who stay young at heart, I want you to stay angry, I want you to stay frustrated, but channel that anger, harness that frustration, keep pushing harder and harder for more and more," he said, while condemning hostility toward climate science and warning them to prepare for a marathon and not a sprint.

But most of the young people attending the summit weren't able to see the former president talk, since his speech required a ticket for access. And even when they later caught up on his speech, they weren't convinced by his message.

"What is the point of addressing young people?" said Dominika Lasota, a 19-year-old Fridays For Future activist from Poland. "Young people are the most serious in this room when it comes to the climate crisis. I feel like there's much more work and there's much more need in addressing some other people in this building rather than us."

Obama could do more to use his influence to ensure that money ends up in lower-income countries collectively known as the Global South, said Nicki Becker, a 20-year-old law student who is part of Fridays For Future in Argentina.

"I don't understand why he's given a speech talking about how the young people are so inspirational," she said. 

Lasota said her generation's view of the former president had changed now that they were hitting adulthood. "He used to be a figure that we looked up to, but now we hold him accountable," she said.

Belgian activist 20-year-old Jada Kennedy grew up in the US, and also said that their opinion of the former president had shifted. "The inner child in me, that was sitting in front of the TV praying that Obama would become president, would be very disappointed right now," they said. Their disappointment was due in large part, they added, to the fact that he was saying what citizens and world leaders could do, but not what he could or would do.

"If one political party says climate change is a hoax and another says it's a crisis, I'm not surprised that people don't know what's up in society," Kennedy said. "Obama communicated that there was a crisis, but as we all know his strength lies in his speech, so his action from here on out will determine if he is just one of the politicians with empty words and promises or not."

Becker said she has a lot of questions for Obama. She wants to know what happened to the money he promised years ago, what he's doing to ensure the US keeps its promise to the developing world and whether anything is really going to change. Her future depends on it, she said.

Lasota, too, wants to know where the $100 billion is. "He was the first one to coin this idea," she said, adding that she wants to know what he is doing about it. "If he wants to be the ally of youth, if he wants to stand with us and be the support, then we need him to be an advocate for the adequate solutions."