MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The world's nations must start working together to address climate change and "save the one planet we've got," President Barack Obama told Pacific Island leaders at the East-West Center on Wednesday.
"If you want to row a canoe, every ore has to moving in unison. Otherwise, I don't know, you go in circles," Obama said, during a brief address. "When in comes to climate change, there's a dire possibility of us getting off course."
Obama is in the islands to mark his historic expansion of the Papahanumokuakea Marine National Monument. His designation makes the monument the largest marine conservation area in the world at a time when ocean ecosystems are under increasing threat from global climate change.
On Thursday morning, Obama will depart for Midway Atoll to tour the monument.
He's slated return to Hawaii on Thursday evening, and leave Friday morning for the G-20 Summit in China.
At his speech Wednesday evening, Obama noted the importance of Pacific islands in his own life. Hawaii's native son told leaders that his parents met on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus, and he attended and graduated from Punahou School.
And since his first daughter was born, he and his family have visited the islands every Christmas.
"I want to make sure 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 the wonders and the beauty of the Pacific," he said. "That's why we have to unite to move forward. We have to row as one. If we do, we might just save the one planet that we've got."
Obama also told the gathering of leaders and other dignitaries that conservation and climate change are "inextricably linked."
"Conservation has been a cornerstone of my presidency," he said.
But he added that "no nation, not even one as powerful as the United States, is immune from a changing climate."
Obama emphasized that remote islands are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, and they must help lead the fight to slow global warming.
"Few people understand, I think, the stakes better than our Pacific Island leaders because they're seeing already the impact. Rising temperatures and sea levels pose an existential threat to your countries," he said.
The president also discussed his decision to quadruple the size of the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument. He said President Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit for starting the National Park system, but his administration has done more to designate preserved areas.
"When you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we now have actually done more acreage than any other president," he said, to loud applause.
Obama also touted his efforts to move America toward more clean energy solutions.
"Our investments have tripled wind power, multiplied solar power 30-fold, and in many places helped clean energy become cheaper than dirty energy," he said.
Obama landed in Honolulu about 6 p.m. Wednesday, and his motorcade quickly made its way to the East-West Center on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
Warnings about major road closures for the president's visit prompted gridlock across the urban core on Wednesday afternoon. The congestion started about 2:30 p.m. as commuters got on the roadways early in an effort to beat road closures.
But by 5 p.m., traffic on roadways was clear, even without road closures in effect.
When Air Force One touched down at Hickam Air Force Base, the president shook hands with several members of the armed services before jetting off to Manoa.
And after speaking to the group of conservationists and Pacific island leaders, the president made sure to greet several personally.
After his speech, Obama headed toward Windward Oahu to stay the night.
Although the roadway delays started Wednesday, traffic isn't likely to improve Thursday.
That's when the IUCN World Conservation Congress will hold it's opening ceremony. Up to 8,000 dignitaries from around the globe will be shuttled from Waikiki to the Blaisdell Center for the event.
Traffic modifications will be made to Kapiolani and Ward avenues and King Street.
Police are warning drivers to expect extreme congestion during the morning commute on Thursday. Officials hope that traffic from the opening ceremony will die down by 2 p.m., however,