Barack Obama on climate, equity and overconsumption

The Green Living Guy ®

Whether you loved or hated President Barack Obama, you can’t deny that the style of leadership — and approach to environmental sustainability — emanating from the White House has changed dramatically in the past three years. If you’re like me, you’ve been wondering what Obama thinks about the climate crisis and other sustainability issues that have been making headlines as part of presidential campaign coverage. 

My curiosity was partially sated last week during the Greenbuild conference, where the former president shared his views about leadership, sustainability and the urgency of climate change. 

Below are highlights from Obama’s conversation with Mahesh Ramanujam, president of the U.S. Green Building Council. I’ve shared several of my takeaways, along with the direct quotes that support them, edited for clarity and length. 

Takeaway: Climate change and inequality are the two biggest issues facing humanity — and they’re closely related.

Obama: Climate change is an existential issue. 

Tax policy, you can have bad tax policy, you can have good tax policy, but if you get that tax policy for four years, for eight years, you can correct it, reverse it. Climate change, it’s one of those [issues] where you can be too late and find, at least in human understanding and time horizons, it becomes irreversible. So I know of no issue that is more urgent than that. 

Now I would combine it, though, with how can we construct a globalized, capitalist economy that actually provides everyone opportunity and is not continually accelerating inequality. 

And the reason I say those two things are connected is that it is hard to figure out how we solve sustainability issues and climate change if you also have huge gaps in wealth and opportunity and education, because what happens — and we’re seeing this around the globe — as wealth becomes more concentrated and more and more energy is being used up by the few, the many become resentful. It undermines our sense of politics and our sense of community. It t is hard for us, then, to mobilize the body politic around taking collective action. 

So we’re not going to solve the former unless we’re also intending to do the latter. 

Takeaway: The sustainability community always needs to think about affordability to create broad support.

Obama: In a place like California, the way building codes have been constructed, there’s almost no low-income housing in certain metropolitan areas. Not just low-income housing, there’s no middle-class income housing. So teachers and police officers and others cannot live in those metropolitan areas because building codes there are so onerous it makes construction of affordable housing almost impossible. 

Well, over time, those populations are going to push back. They’re going to think that anything related to creating sustainable building codes is somehow adding to our costs, making our life more expensive. 

So if we want to think about sustainability, we have to do it in a way that also is thinking about affordability. And if you’re not paying attention to that, you’re not going to get enough pick-up. 

Takeaway: The most powerful way to restart the conversation about sustainability is through stories that connect people to place. 

Obama: I do believe that the way that people are moved is by hearing stories and not facts. Now I am a fact guy, I’m all about logic and reason and fact. I think those enlightenment values are really important. Obviously, that’s contested these days sometimes. What moves people is stories and connection. And when we consider issues of sustainability, connecting people’s sense of place with the work that you’re doing becomes critical.

Stories about place, I think, are a good way to start a conversation about sustainability. Because I think everybody recognizes that we live in a time where we feel more disconnected now and the phone and virtual communities aren’t going to replace real communities.

Takeaway: The most important part of organizing is listening, not telling, and 'do-gooders' too often tell people what to think.

Obama: Here’s the central principle about organizing communities, and I’ll be honest with you, it’s the principle just about living and trying to have an impact. I always tell young organizers working for us, "Your first job is not to talk, but to listen."

Getting a sense about people’s stories: You don’t know that unless you spend time listening to them. And I do think one of the chronic problems of do-gooders is sometimes we like to tell people what they should think is important, instead of actually asking them, "What’s important to you?" 

Takeaway: America’s overconsumption is undercutting innovations that otherwise would help us address climate change.

Obama: This is a larger cultural point — how much is enough? All of you are familiar with the fact that one of the reasons that, despite huge increases in energy-efficient technologies, we still have such a big carbon footprint is our houses have gotten so much bigger. 

The question is: How much space do we need? 

We’re America, we’re used to a lot of space, we don’t want to have constraints, we want big — everything’s big. Big Macs. Whoppers. That’s big stuff. 

And I get that. That’s part of our DNA in America; we like being big. 

I talk about this with our daughters all the time. We’re now at the point in our lives where we can have sort of as much as we want of anything, and it’s like a good meal. Sometimes just having a nice meal instead of keeping on going back to the buffet, you feel better at the end of it. 

Takeaway: No matter what you say you believe in, it all comes down to where you put your time, money and energy. 

Obama: I think what we should all be striving for as a society is to align what we say we’re about and our core ideals with what we do. So if we say that our children and the next generation are the most important things, then we have to act in accordance with those values. 

If you are someone, as I am, who has a certain faith, Christian faith, and I read the Good Book, and it tells me that I’m supposed to treat others the way I want to be treated, well, then I actually think I should be doing that. 

And if I profess that the New Testament says we should be worrying about the poor and the weak and the vulnerable, and you say that’s what you’re about, then presumably that should be reflected in your policies and the people you support. 

I worry that any society where how we live strays too far from what we say we believe in is going to have a problem. And currently, there is more divergence than I would like.