HONOLULU ― Days after creating the largest marine protected area on the planet, President Barack Obama on Wednesday traveled to Hawaii to address those attending the world’s largest conservation event, highlighting his administration’s expansion of the nearby monument and the need to swiftly combat climate change.
“No nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune from a changing climate,” Obama told a small, private audience at Honolulu’s East-West Center that included the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders and delegates of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress.
The president’s appearance in Hawaii spotlights IUCN’s World Conservation Congress, which begins Thursday in Honolulu ― the first time the U.S. has hosted the gathering in IUCN’s 68-year history. The congress, held every four years, is the world’s largest environment and nature conservation event, often referred to as the Olympics of conservation.
Obama said conservation has been a cornerstone of his presidency.
“I have to say that Teddy Roosevelt gets credit for starting the National Park System, but when you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we have now actually done more acreage,” he said of his administration.
Obama’s speech called attention to his move last week to quadruple the area included in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument surrounding the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The White House said the expansion “provides critical protections for more than 7,000 marine species,” many found nowhere else on earth.
Established in 2006 by President George W. Bush, Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah ) was already larger than all of the country’s national parks combined. Now 582,578 square miles, it is nearly four times the size of California and dwarfs the United Kingdom’s 322,000-square-mile Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, which formerly held the title of world’s largest fully protected marine area.
The expansion extends the monument’s protections, including a ban on commercial fishing, from 50 miles to 200 miles around the remote island chain.
Obama’s expansion of the monument and his trip to Hawaii could not come at a more opportune time.
In a May 2014 letter to former IUCN Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre, Obama expressed strong support for Hawaii’s bid to host the event.
“Hawaii is one of the most culturally and ecologically rich areas in the United States, with a wealth of unique natural resources and a distinctive traditional culture that draws from the United States and the Asia-Pacific region,” the president wrote. “The diversity and vulnerability of Hawaii’s natural resources, as well as their importance to the islands’ economy, make Hawaii a perfect location to discuss these challenges.”
Obama on Thursday is expected to travel to Midway Atoll, a small, circular-shaped atoll within Papahānaumokuākea, where he will make a statement on the marine monument expansion.
“This is a hallowed site, and it deserves to be treated that way,” Obama said of the monument. “And from now on, it will be preserved for future generations.”
Watch Obama’s speech above.