Green Keys

Highlights from former President Obama's Greenbuild keynote

Former President Barack Obama spoke at Greenbuild 2019 in Atlanta on Tuesday, November 20, 2019 (Courtesy Oscar & Associates)

“Climate change is an existential issue,” said former President Barack Obama at the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) 2019 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo on November 20. Thousands of attendees gathered at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta to hear the keynote in which Obama spoke with USGBC president and CEO, Mahesh Ramanujam, about sustainability and affordability. 

To kick off the conversation, Ramanujam asked the former president what he believes to be the “most compelling issue in the world today.” The answer? Climate change and global economic inequality. “This is one of those [issues] where you can be too late. So, I know of no other issue that is more urgent,” he explained while pointing to the huge gaps in wealth and opportunity around the world. 

Citing the lack of affordable housing in California as one example, Obama said that in metropolitan areas, “building codes are so onerous that it makes construction of affordable housing almost impossible.” He anticipated some pushback but believes that the creation of sustainable building codes might also usher in an erroneous public perception of higher costs of living. “If we want to think about sustainability, we have to do it in a way that also is thinking about affordability,” he stated, according to Architectural Record

The former president followed that thought by stressing the importance of empathy and active listening to the concerns of constituents, neighborhoods, or clients. “When you listen, it turns out that you get a sense of what people’s priorities are,” he said, “Then, figure out how to shape a sustainable agenda around those concerns.” 



In regards to the progress of Chicago’s new Obama Presidential Center, he spoke about his experience working with architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien by emphasizing how important it is to have a diverse team. “The goal is to have people around the table who can bring to bear a set of different perspectives and correct for each other’s blind spots—including yours.” 

He also praised the younger generations and what he has learned from them, including his own daughters, on the urgency of climate change and the challenges ahead. “It’s visceral, visual,” he said according to Buildings. “Those young people change the minds of their parents in powerful ways. That kind of grassroots movement, particularly among young people, is something that is always going to be key.” 

At the end of the keynote, he concluded with the disconnect often present between values and actions: “I think it’s very important in our personal lives, but also collectively, to get those back into alignment, so each of us can do our part.”

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