An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA

December 16, 2009

Dear Mr. President:

Four years ago at the UN climate negotiations in Montreal, I was part of a delegation of hundreds of youth observers from across the country and thousands from across the globe. In a meeting we held with the lead U.S. negotiator at the time, I told him we knew he had been sent to the negotiations by an administration that would not lead the world to a strong, just global climate treaty. I promised him that we would go home and work harder than we had ever worked to elect the administration that would. This week, four years and one presidential election later, I am asking you to prove in Copenhagen that we have made good on that promise.

My own trip to these UN climate negotiations is not my first trip to Copenhagen; I studied abroad here as an undergraduate. During that year, I made another trans-Atlantic trip to a climate conference, taking off from Copenhagen and landing on the East Coast to co-coordinate the 2nd Annual Northeast Climate Conference at Harvard University and to surprise my friends and allies with my participation. I knew then that combating climate change would be about unwavering commitment and dramatic leaps of faith. I wanted to show that I believed in the growing climate movement so much that I was willing to drop everything and pay to cross oceans and work without stop or sleep for days to support it. I wanted to make the point that that is the very least we have to be willing to do for big ideas and for each other. The 2nd Annual Northeast Climate Conference brought together over five hundred youth climate leaders from across the Northeast—an unprecedented number at that time. Only five years later, Powershift 2009 united over twelve thousand youth climate leaders to flood the halls of Congress to call for bold, comprehensive climate legislation this year and for the US to lead the world to a clean and equitable energy future.

About these so-called “youth leaders,” better just called “leaders:” I regret that what is truly unprecedented political savvy and policy smarts on the part of so many young leaders is sometimes discounted because for whatever reason their deliberate idealism is still not seen as a serious strategy. But in truth, youth disappointment with the United States’ position here in Copenhagen is far from a symptom of some growth process from starry-eyed naivety to mature political pragmatism. These youth understand the U.S. political context only too well. They have read the draft legislation and watched committee markups, talked to constituents in districts across the country, and lobbied in the halls of Congress and even here at the negotiations. These youth come from the rust belt and the Bible belt, from inner cities and from farms. Some come from families that have lost their livelihoods in the latest economic crisis. Some plan to run for elected office; some are already in office. They have knocked on countless doors in communities across the nation to get out the vote for clean energy and climate justice champions. In 2008, they knocked on those doors for you.

These youth understand only too well the politics of U.S climate action in international context. Here in Copenhagen, they have heard appeals on the basis of the Senate vote count and the way the American public just does not get it, been warned of the specter of Chinese emissions run amok, heard the cautionary tale of Kyoto, and been told that after eight years of inaction, your administration is simply limited in what it can accomplish so soon.

These youth have cried together in the hallways of the negotiations over the last week and a half. No small number of their allies on country delegations and in the “adult” civil society community who have labored in this process for years and decades have been crying, too. In a moving speech on the floor of the negotiations last week, a delegate from the threatened island nation of Tuvalu spoke of his own tears. I wonder what it is like for him to know the day is likely coming when his family can never go home again. I wonder what it is like, in the face of current global geopolitics, to be effectively powerless to stop it—or even pressured not to speak up.

I wonder at the fact that here in Copenhagen, Tuvalu and the Maldives and countries across Africa and beyond are speaking up and demanding to be heard all the same. There is quite a difference between understanding and acquiescing, between a moment of despair and the moment of defeat. We understand the politics, Mr. President. We simply refuse to accept that they must be so.

Last year, eight of my friends and personal heroes launched 350.org, a global network uniting change agents in communities in over 180 countries for the single largest climate action in history. On October 24th 2009, fifteen thousand people rallied in the streets of Addis Ababa to call for a Copenhagen agreement to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to a safe level, 350ppm. In the Maldives, President Nasheed led his ministers in an underwater cabinet meeting. In Kunar, Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers spelled out “350” in sandbags. And on, and on. As one of 350.org’s co-founders has pointed out, those people did not turn out for a Copenhagen failure or for a celebration of greenwashed mediocrity. They turned out for hope and justice and science and community and a number good enough to save the world.

I am not the first to say this, but it is a strange kind of international process that allows its outcome to hinge almost entirely on a small part of one country’s government—namely, on your leadership and on the U.S. Senate. I know you did not ask to be in the position of making or breaking a global climate treaty. I do not think any of the so-called current climate “swing senators” ran for office with the idea that they would one day be largely responsible for the fate of global civil society, either. But as you yourself have already demonstrated so many times over, real leadership is rarely about responding to normal circumstances or reasonable expectations. Far more often, it is about acting in the face of situations you did not wish for and do not deserve to have to face. And it is about using privilege in the service of those who do not have it in equal measure.

I am asking that this Friday in Copenhagen, you publicly articulate your commitment to using all the powers and resources at your disposal to deliver a short-term climate target rooted in science rather than in politics, a legally binding architecture with strict compliance requirements for the United States, and finance for the developing world orders of magnitude larger than the commitment currently on the table. Fairly or unfairly, I am essentially asking you to exert the singular leadership necessary to protect all nations and all peoples’ right to survival in the face of the mounting climate crisis.

In addition to addressing this letter to you directly, I am posting it publicly on itsgettinghotinhere.org. It seemed the most fitting place; launched at the Montreal negotiations, itsgettinghotinhere.org has chronicled over four years of real climate leadership by youth and citizens across the US and across the world. It is that very kind of leadership I am asking of you now.

Mr. President, I know that what I am asking is improbable. But you have already moved the United States to achieve improbable and even nearly impossible things. So, I am asking of you nothing more than you have already proven capable of. And nothing more than I and the U.S. youth here in Copenhagen are fighting for ourselves—now, and for the rest of our lives.

Sincerely,

Meg Boyle

16 Responses to “An Open Letter to President Barack Obama”


  1. 1 Morgan Dec 16th, 2009 at 9:33 am

    Meg, I am incredibly moved by this piece. You’ve captured the power and emotion that the youth movement has brought to the world, and why. We’ve already changed the political reality, but it isn’t nearly enough. ItsGettingHotInHere is absolutely the right place for this, although I hope it finds a lot of traction in other places too. Thank you.

  2. 2 Rachel Butler Dec 16th, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Meg, thank you. You’ve put into words what so many of us are hoping for, working for, and absolutely refusing to give up on.

  3. 3 Juliana Williams Dec 16th, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Meg, thank you. It is absolutely important to understand youth leadership as simply leadership. I appreciate the gentle rebuke that those in power didn’t ask for this situation, but need to use their privilege to deal with it. Mediocrity isn’t good enough for the millions of people balanced on the edge of survival.

  4. 4 brinkleyhutchings Dec 16th, 2009 at 10:57 am

    Meg, this is a great letter. We know that President Obama can be a leader here at the negotiations. We need to keep up the pressure and encouragement during these last days of the negotiations. I, too, have faith that Pres. Obama will be the leader we know he can be.

  5. 5 M Stern Dec 16th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Meg, thanks for the letter. Following the negotiations from across the Atlantic, it has put things back in perspective for me. My hope it that it will find its way to Obama’s eyes and do the same for him.

    In solidarity.

  6. 6 Laura Comer Dec 16th, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Our movement is just getting started, and if 4 years took us that far, I cannot wait for the next!

  7. 7 John Deans Dec 16th, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Meg, I was at that Northeast Summit years ago, and it is what got me engaged in the process. Over the years, it has been amazing to see what we have accomplished, but the leadership to solve the problem rests in the hands of the man I elected. I knocked on doors, I lobbied my friends to vote, and now I am asking him to rise above the traditional politics he seems so beholden to. Thank you for this letter and Mr. President, be the leader I elected.

  8. 8 Ruby Dec 16th, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for this letter.

  9. 9 Jen Baldwin Dec 16th, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    What an eloquent appeal, Meg.

    The staggering number of youth present at the Bella Center last week, and the disconnect between their pleas and the inertia in the plenaries, is really baffling.

    Here’s to science over politics. But politics still play an important role . . . we need to hold our elected officials accountable to their constituents. Unfortunately there seems to be an abyss between generations on this issue. If people at home, both young and old, aren’t out in the streets demanding a stronger climate target, I fear nothing more will be put on the table . . .

    are there any plans for demonstrations at home in our respective countries? or can I donate my facebook status message to this thursday/friday?

  10. 10 dveysey Dec 16th, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Really great letter, Meg. It so clearly captures the sentiments many of us hold. Thank you.

  11. 11 Jessy Tolkan Dec 17th, 2009 at 5:45 am

    Meg,

    You’ve been a hero in this movement from day 1. Your tenacity and total commitment to being a principled youth climate movement is at the heart of so much of our collective success. Beautiful letter, that deserves a personal response from the President himself.

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About


A proud supporter of the US youth climate movement since 2003, Meg was a co-founder of the Climate Campaign, the Energy Action Coalition, and the Campus Climate Challenge. Supporting a new generation of passionate, thoughtful leaders is her climate strategy.

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