Obama was a keynote speaker at the sustainable building conference Greenbuild in downtown Atlanta, where he participated in a question and answer session with Mahesh Ramanujam, the president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council.
Ramanujam asked Obama what he believes to be the “most compelling issue in the world today” and what should be done to get people to rally around it.
Obama responded by saying that two “directly connected” issues top his list: climate change and global economic inequality.
“The reason I say those two things are connected is that it is hard to figure out how we solve sustainability issues and deal with climate change if you also have huge gaps in wealth and opportunity and education,” Obama said. “Because what happens — and we’re seeing this around the globe — is that as wealth gets more and more concentrated and more and more energy is used up by the few, the many become resentful and it undermines our sense of politics and a sense of community.”
He said that dynamic makes it difficult to mobilize people around taking collective action, so society won’t be able to solve climate change without attending to inequality as well.
Obama pointed to a conversation he had with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi while trying to get the Paris Climate Accord finalized as a real-world example. Modi said he couldn’t tell his constituencies that they had to “go without electricity for the good of the planet, even though you’re in crippling poverty,” Obama said.
He said that improving technology transfers to underdeveloped regions is needed so that countries can improve their economies in sustainable ways.