President Obama Urges Leaders in Hawai‘i to Save the Planet From Climate Change

Obama calls for action at the East-West Center.
Photo: Cindy Ellen Russell/The White House Press Pool 


In his hometown of Honolulu yesterday, President Barack Obama urged world leaders, private organizations and citizens to work together now to address climate changes, to preserve the planet for generations to come.


Obama spoke on the grounds of the East-West Center, near where many of the milestones of his early life took place: where his parents met, where he was born, where his grandparents lived, his early education in Mānoa and at Punahou School.


“No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune from a changing climate,” he said, citing the state of Alaska, “where the sea is already swallowing villages and eating away at shorelines; where the permafrost thaws and the tundra is burning; where glaciers are melting at a pace unprecedented in modern times.”


The president spoke to an audience of about 200, comprising mostly government and university brass, top officials from around the Pacific as well as leaders of the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which kicked off officially today.




He said the subject hits close to home in Honolulu, where his family has spent their holidays for nearly two decades. “Since Malia was born, since my oldest child was born, I’ve brought them here every Christmas for the last 18 years now,” he said. “And I want to make sure that when they’re bringing their children here, or their grandchildren here, that they are able to appreciate the wonders and the beauty of this island and of the Pacific, and every island.”


Obama quoted a Hawaiian proverb that translates loosely to unite to move forward. “When it comes to climate change, there is a dire possibility of us getting off course, and we can’t allow that to happen,” he said.


The IUCN conference has been dubbed the Olympics of conservation—with 8,000 delegates from more than 180 countries—and this marks the first time it has been held in the United States, which is a coup for Hawai‘i, often known as the endangered-species capital of the world.


Obama went on to say, “Since taking office, I’ve protected more than 548 million acres of our lands and waters for our children and our grandchildren. I have to say that Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit for starting the National Parks system, but when you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we now have actually done more acreage than any other President. 


“And just last week, thanks to the hard work of many people in this room, including Sen. Brian Schatz, I created the world’s largest marine preserve—quadrupling the size of our monument at Papahānaumokuākea.”




Conference organizers had moved some of the sessions to the Neal Blaisdell Center, hoping that might prompt a presidential appearance. Other sessions are being held at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, where the glass walls make security problematic.


Obama assured the Pacific leaders he knew their issues better than some politicians: “While some members of the U.S. Congress still seem to be debating whether climate change is real or not, many of you are already planning for new places for your people to live,” he said. “Crops are withering in the Marshall Islands. Kiribati bought land in another country because theirs may someday be submerged. High seas forced villagers from their homes in Fiji.”


While the president faced a supportive crowd, his talk came at the end of a day that included another conservation-themed speech in Lake Tahoe, and he seemed a bit travel-weary. He stumbled on the pronunciation of Papahānaumokuākea and Schatz’s name.




Still, the East-West Center crowd was appreciative of his appearance, and as he wrapped up the brief speech, there were more cell phones and hands in the air than many a campaign rally. He then headed for dinner at Morimoto with family and friends, then back to the Kailua beach house he has spent family holidays in recent years. After a quick trip Thursday to Midway Atoll to see more of the national monument, he reportedly plans to spend another night on the Windward Side before heading to China Friday morning.


With looming stormy weather, motorcade gridlock and conference traffic, officials suggest that people steer clear of the meeting areas if they can.