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Obama uses Hawaiian proverb to call for protection of Pacific Islands

The former president delivered the remarks Monday at a Pacific Islands session of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Scotland.
Image: Barack Obama at COP26 on Nov. 8, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Former President Barack Obama at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday.Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

During a U.N. Climate Change Conference session on the Pacific Islands, former President Barack Obama recited a Hawaiian proverb to stress the importance of uniting countries to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“There’s an old Hawaiian proverb, ‘Pupukahi I Holomua.’ That’s roughly translated into ‘unite to move forward,’” he said Monday. 

“It’s a reminder that if you want to paddle a canoe, you better all be rowing in the same direction and at the same time. Every oar has to move in unison,” he said. “That’s the only way that you move forward. And that’s the kind of spirit that we need to protect our island resources. That’s the kind of spirit we need to protect our people.”

Obama was born and raised in Hawaii, and also lived in Indonesia for several years as a child.

He has previously credited his upbringing in Hawaii for his love of the natural world. 

“Since Malia was born, since my oldest child was born, I’ve brought them here every Christmas for the last 18 years now,” Obama told National Geographic in 2016. “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. ... That’s why we have to unite to move forward. We have to row as one.” 

At the conference, he said the effect of rising sea levels on the Pacific Islands is a warning for everyone. “If we don’t act and we don’t act boldly, it’s going to be too late,” he said.

Scientists have urged countries to take action in the past. In 2018, East Island in Hawaii, a critical habitat for endangered green sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals, was washed away after Hurricane Walaka barreled through the state.

Scientists warn that the islands that disappeared in Hawaii and other places are warnings of what could happen to larger islands and continental coasts.

“As was true five years ago, we have not done enough and our islands are threatened more than ever,” Obama said.