Climate change and cooperation emerged as key themes Wednesday when President Barack Obama addressed Pacific Island government leaders and others at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
“No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune to a changing climate,” he said, adding that “there’s no conflict between a healthy economy and a healthy planet.”
“While some members of the U.S. Congress still seem to be debating whether climate change is real or not, you are planning for new places for your people to live,” Obama 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.”
The private speech before the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders, a group of 20 government officials chaired by Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, came on the eve of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s 10-day event in Honolulu.
More than 9,000 people from 190 countries are coming to what’s been dubbed the “Olympics of Conservation.” It’s the first time that the IUCN’s World Conservation Congress, created in 1948, will meet in the United States — something Obama highlighted in his speech.
Environmental advocates had wanted Obama to speak at the opening ceremony Thursday morning at Blaisdell Center, hoping that’s where he would announce the fourfold expansion of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Instead, the president signed the proclamation for the expansion last week.
“Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit for starting the National Park Service, but when you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we now have actually included more acreage,” Obama said.
Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila, one of seven prominent Native Hawaiians who initially asked Obama in February to expand Papahanaumokuakea, said after the president’s speech that he appreciated his recognition of Pacific Islanders leading the discussion on climate change.
“He spoke very boldly on climate change and the need for everyone in the world to come together to meet the challenge,” Aila said. “In Hawaii, we call it a kakou thing where everyone showed up, like the president requested tonight, to move in one direction to get an acceptable outcome.”
Obama, born and raised in Hawaii, mispronounced Papahanaumokuakea in his remarks about his decision to expand the monument to be twice the size of Texas. But Aila wasn’t concerned about pronouncing the word right, something many struggle to do.
“He was tired,” Aila said. “From my perspective, he signed the proclamation — he’s forgiven.”
The president also recognized Sen. Brian Schatz, who turned the initial idea of expanding the monument into a proposal with defined boundaries that factored in concerns of fishermen.
Obama is headed to Midway Atoll on Thursday to highlight the threats of climate change, which the heads of Pacific Island nations and territories have said is hitting their people disproportionately hard.
Hawaii, too, is feeling the effects of climate change. Local government officials are exploring strategies to help the state adapt to rising sea levels, unprecedented coral bleaching and mosquito-borne diseases wreaking havoc on habitats in island forests.
Obama announced more than $30 million in new commitments “for our friends in the Pacific — funding for investments like stronger infrastructure, more sustainable development, and safer drinking water.”
Hawaii Gov. David Ige hosted the Pacific Islands Conference of Leaders on Tuesday evening at Washington Place to honor former Gov. George Ariyoshi’s “visionary work” in initially bringing the group together 36 years ago.
“I am struck by the tremendous opportunity before us to build lasting partnerships to protect our shared home: Island Earth,” Ige said in a statement. “I believe the vision that Governor Ariyoshi did so much to create is even more relevant today than it was in the 1980s.”
The governor said he strongly believes that the island governments can “work together and find solutions to the most pressing problems facing our earth.”
The PICL, sometimes called “Pickle” for short, meets roughly every three years. The group’s three-day meeting this week marks its 10th to date.
Wednesday was not the first time high-level government officials have discussed climate change at the East-West Center, which Congress created in 1960 as an independent “resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the center in 2014 about the United States’ “ambitious agenda” of long-term engagement in Asia and the Pacific. He said that “complex challenges such as climate change and maritime territorial disputes can be transformed into opportunities for such advances as clean energy development and regional cooperation.”
An hour before the president arrived to speak at the East-West Center, a group that included Bernie Sanders supporters and people opposed to genetically modified seed companies rallie outside to protest the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The TPP would be a partnership among 12 countries, including the United States, Japan and Australia, that’s been touted as a way to reduce trade barriers and increase exports of made-in-America products. Critics call it a lopsided deal that benefits corporate interests and hurts consumers and the environment.
University of Hawaii students also gathered in large numbers outside the East-West Center in anticipation of the president’s arrival.
Watch the full video of Obama’s speech below.