ATLANTA — Former President Barack Obama linked environmental issues like climate change to global inequality during a presentation held Wednesday morning at the 2019 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo.

Thousands packed the Georgia World Congress Center for the conference, held Nov. 20-22. The conference kicked off with an hour-long moderated conversation between the 44th president and Mehesh Ramanujam, president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

The annual conference is the largest event dedicated to green building and the biggest converging of leaders in sustainability. When asked what he believes is the most compelling issue in the world today, Obama said two “directly connected” issues topped 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. It is hard for us then to mobilize the body politic around taking collective action.” 

The former president was also asked about leadership and how parenting has shaped his own leadership abilities.

“Parenting takes you outside of yourself … It reminds you that ultimately what is most important is what you are contributing,” Obama said. “It humbles you, people don’t listen to you, you have to come up with new strategies to get things done.”

Greenbuild showcases the latest trends and technologies shaping the development of green buildings, cities and communities. The USGBC used the 2019 conference to announce its new LEEKS Positive initiative to improve green building techniques that can turn buildings into structures that repair the environment.

Obama joins an elite group of keynote speakers. Former Greenbuild speakers include Ret. Gen. Colin Powell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, famed architect Bjarke Ingles, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, human rights activist Amal Clooney, and former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore, among others.

“President Obama is a global leader and a long-time friend of the green building community,” said Ramanujam in a written statement. “While in office, his administration negotiated the landmark Paris Climate Accords, expanded the impact of our field and helped open the door for energy efficiency investments in both the public and private sectors.”

In addition to speakers, Greenbuild features dozens of workshops, events and summits, including a Women in Green Power Luncheon, Corporate Sustainability Forum and Leadership Awards Ceremony to recognize individuals and organizations committed to green building design construction and operations.