Exclusive: Obama Says Hawaii—and Mom—Shaped Love of Nature

In an interview on Midway Atoll, he says his mother’s influence and memories of Hawaii help inspire focus on marine life and climate change.

MIDWAY ATOLL — President Barack Obama strolled across this small scratch of sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on Thursday and looked out over the largest protected area on the planet, a stretch of shimmering water twice the size of Texas that he'd just set aside for the ages.

Yet even here, halfway between his childhood homes in Honolulu and Jakarta, with green-tinged clouds reflecting the aqua sea and an endangered Hawaiian monk seal lolling above the tide behind him, the president could not escape the clock.

"I'm 55," Obama said during an exclusive conversation about the environment with National Geographic. "I'll be leaving the presidency and beginning a new phase. My oldest daughter just graduated from high school. This is a time when you start thinking about what you are leaving behind."

Obama was on the atoll to tour Midway's 1,100-acre Sand Island and view the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, a pristine expanse of coral reefs and seamounts that he expanded by executive order last week, home to millions of seabirds, endangered turtles, monk seals, and more than 7,000 species. It was a day in which Obama sought to spotlight his environmental legacy, and see during a snorkeling trip off Midway some of the species he has protected. (Read about the newly discovered fish that will be named for Obama.)

During the interview, Obama bounced across the ages. He spoke of his mother and of the nights when she shook him awake to gaze at a brilliant sky, as well as the days when she dragged him through marbled museum corridors to stare at skeletons. He highlighted his concerns about the future of the oceans and the planet, and outlined what he hopes will be one of his proudest accomplishments as president.

He said that as president one of his essential roles may be to be a sort of living lens on nature’s beauty and vulnerability, one that can peer out into the open ocean and, with the media watching, let the world view environmental challenges as he does.

"It's not enough to just talk about policy in the abstract," Obama said, as invasive beetles flitted across his path. "People have to see it and feel it and be able to understand what it is that we're fighting for, and why this is so important."

In the closing months of his time in the White House, Obama has been on an aggressive push to emphasize the importance of science and the environment. Much of his focus on such issues might not have happened if he weren’t so enamored of scientists, a love he said he got in part from his mother, the late Ann Dunham.

"You know my mom was somebody who loved—and I'm not pandering here—she loved National Geographic," the president said, sweating beneath Sand Island's sweltering sun. "She was an anthropologist and she didn't just love the social sciences, she loved physics and astronomy. She's the kind of person who would wake me up to see a full moon if it was particularly spectacular. She took me around to natural history museums. So I give her a lot of credit for, not only appreciating the amazing wonder of our planet and the oceans and skies, but also a deep-rooted belief of the power of the human mind and science and rationality to figure stuff out."

Scientists say it's hard to overstate the significance of waters such as those in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. The coral reefs there are some of the planet's healthiest, serving as nurseries for species that extend far beyond the monument's boundaries, and helping to generate life throughout a great swath of the Pacific.

But that's just one of several dozen protected areas Obama has established using the Antiquities Act, which include Stonewall, a small Greenwich Village park that recognizes the birth of the gay rights movement; Nevada's 704,000-acre Basin and Range Monument, which the president highlighted Wednesday on a swing through Lake Tahoe; and the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to 490,000 square miles, six times its previous size.

All this action hasn't been without controversy. Fishing groups have objected to Obama’s expansion of marine monuments near Hawaii, worried that they might lose access to some stocks of tuna and swordfish. Last week, Obama designated a huge swath of Maine’s North Woods for federal protection, a move that was opposed by some residents who feared it could limit public access to some areas.

Obama has also been speaking out about his other actions, such as ratcheting up fuel economy standards on new vehicles, including trucks, vans, and buses, and driving United States carbon emissions to their lowest level in years.

In November of 2014 Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that they would each take steps to dramatically curb emissions from fossil fuels that cause climate change. Then, last December, in Paris, 195 nations agreed that they would seek to limit warming increases to "well below 2 degrees Celsius" and would strive to bring rising temperatures down even further.

Obama heads today to Asia for the G-20 summit, where the two biggest polluting nations, the United States and China, are expected to ratify the hard-fought international climate accord the president helped bring about last year in Paris after two decades of failure.

Asked what he hopes will some day be considered his greatest success, Obama mentioned one thing.

"I'll tell you, if 25 years from now we look back and we can say that as a consequence of the Paris agreement and the investments we made in clean energy and research and development we found new power sources, and we've been able to halt the warming of the planet ... that'll have to rank right up there," he said.

A Calmness Born in Hawaii

For a president who understands the power of symbolism, Midway offered no shortage.

The child of the islands who once described these waters as "the trembling blue plane of the Pacific" suggested his own seemingly preternatural calm is, in part, rooted in growing up so familiar with water.

"People always ask, why do I stay calm in the midst of a lot of crazy stuff going on," he said. "Well, I always tell folks part of it's being born in Hawaii and knowing what it's like to jump into the ocean and understanding what it means when you see a sea turtle in the face of a wave."

In a spot made famous as a turning point in history, where U.S. forces beat back the Japanese and helped to shift the tide of World War II, Obama also tried to highlight the epic scale of the battle he said must continue to be waged against the fossil fuel emissions that are heating the globe.

From the moment he arrived in Hawaii on Wednesday, it seemed that Obama’s mission of environmental legacy was destined to be laced with a heavy dose of sentiment.

As he ended remarks Wednesday evening at the World Conservation Congress on Oahu's Waikiki, the president grew reflective, pointing out that "a lot of my life started about a mile radius around here."

His parents had met a few hundred yards from where he was speaking, he said. He was born and went to school about a mile away. His grandparents lived most of their lives just a short distance from that spot.

"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're able to appreciate the wonders and the beauty of this island, and of the Pacific, and every island. So I know you have the same feeling, and that's why we have to unite to move forward. We have to row as one."

On Thursday, Obama conceded there's a possibility that progress on the environment could slide off course but said that he aims to do what he can to make sure world leaders work together, even if he and Congress don't.

"I'm a congenital optimist, and I really believe that it is well within our power to make sure that we leave this place better rather than worse," he said. "But it requires some thought, it takes some organization and some work."

He attributed this confidence to history. Some rivers in the Midwest were badly polluted in the 1960s, a problem symbolized by the fire in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River in 1969. Urban smog was so thick in California when he was a college student there during late 1970s and early 1980s that it was too unhealthy for him to jog. Yet today people swim in those rivers, Obama said, and "although obviously L.A.'s not Midway Atoll, smog has been significantly reduced in the middle of one of the most crowded cities in the world."

"What that shows," he said, "is that with some modest effort we can not only halt the degradation of nature, but we can actually reverse a lot of it."

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