MILAN – Former U.S. President Barack Obama says he’s “confident that the United States will continue to move in the right direction” on climate change despite his successor’s pledges to undo many of his policies.
On his first foreign foray since leaving office, Obama told an audience Tuesday at a Milan conference on food innovation in Italy that businesses in the United States are already committed to clean energy, in part due to cost-savings, which would help counteract moves by Donald Trump’s administration.
While campaigning for president, Trump pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement, the first international deal to curb greenhouse gas emissions from both rich and poor countries. Obama enthusiastically supported the agreement, which was adopted by the United States and more than 190 other countries in 2015.
“The good news is, in part because of what we did over the last eight years, the private sector has already made a determination that the future is in clean energy. Investments are moving into clean energy,” Obama said.
“It may be that some of the steps we put in place may move more slowly than they otherwise would have. But I’m confident that the United States will continue to move in the right direction,” he said.
Obama referred to Trump by name only once, discussing efforts to roll back on Obama’s own “aggressive standards” on fuel efficiency for passenger cars.
“The Trump administrative made a change,” Obama said, but he added that those moves would be up against even stricter standards in California, the country’s largest car market.
“So even if the rules change in Washington, there is not a U.S. automaker that can afford to produce a car that is not fuel efficient enough to be sold in California,” Obama said.
More than 3,000 people, including government and business leaders, attended Obama’s keynote address focusing on the intersection between climate change and food security, two issues that have long been an Obama focus.
Obama noted that food production was the second-largest driver of climate change after energy production. At the same time, he said, climate change is creating shrinking agricultural yields and spiking food prices that “in some places are leading to political instability.”
“In fact, some of the refugee flows into Europe originate not only from conflict, but also places where there are food shortages. That will get far worse as climate change continues,” Obama told the conference. “So if we don’t take the necessary action to slow and ultimately stop these trends, the migration that has put such a burden on Europe already will just continue to grow.”
Following the speech, he engaged in an hour-long conversation with former White House chef Sam Kass, who asked what he did not miss about the presidency.
Obama replied that he was happy to be out of the security bubble and regain some freedom of movement. But he said there was still a price.
“Now I am only captive to selfies. Which is almost as bad,” the former president said. “I can walk anywhere, as long as I am willing to take a selfie every two steps.”
Obama arrived in Milan on Monday, where he met former Premier Matteo Renzi, a political ally who is mounting a comeback after resigning when his referendum on constitutional reforms failed.
Renzi welcomed Obama in a Facebook post, calling him “a friend and great leader … who still has much to say and give to world politics.”
Obama made a few tourist stops in Italy’s fashion and finance capital, including the gothic-era Duomo cathedral, before attending a dinner hosted by an Italian think tank attended by friends and business leaders.
Before heading to the food innovation summit Tuesday, he went to see Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” accompanied by Italy’s culture minister.
“So even in our religion and in our art, food is important,” he said.
You can watch Obama’s full keynote speech here.