A message of hope and optimism about the future came from former U.S. president Barack Obama in front of a Calgary audience midday on Tuesday.
But that message came with a caveat — the importance of making responsible decisions about how to build that future.
“All of us are going to have to recognize that there are trade-offs involved with how we live, how our economy is structured and the world we are going to be passing on to our kids and to our grandchildren,” the 44th president of the United States told a full Saddledome. “No one is exempt from that conversation.”
Obama credited oil and gas with powering industry and economies, saying: “It’s still the cheapest means for us to power all the things that we do.”
But the two-term president, who famously rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, said that the science is “indisputable that the planet is getting warmer.”
“At the current pace we’re on, the scale of tragedy that will consume humanity is something we have not seen — if we don’t do something about it,” he said.
WATCH: As the former president of the United States arrived in Calgary Tuesday, so did a convoy and tight security team. As Jenna Freeman reports, the RCMP was tasked with protecting the dignitary.
Obama pointed to the need for a plan to transition to new sources of energy and to “clean up old energy sources,” putting full confidence in human ingenuity to make that change.
The former Illinois senator also had some thoughts for the many Calgarians and Albertans who work in the oil and gas sector during the 70-minute discussion.
“If you are a practical person and you, let’s say, work in the oil and gas industry right now and it provides a great living, and you feel like you’re providing a great service. This is critical to the global economy, and you take great pride in your work — you should,” Obama said.
“But understand that we’re going to have to make some choices one way or another. And either we’re going to do it intentionally and thoughtfully and seriously, or it will happen to us. And by the time it happens to us, it may be too late. And that, I think, is how we have to think about it.”
Obama suggested the efforts in science and engineering used in extracting bitumen and natural gas in Alberta could be used to help find alternative energy solutions.
“The same extraordinary engineering and science that’s used at getting at hard oil … the engineering that exists within oil and gas industries, if some of that starts to get invested by those same companies in developing other energy sources, and those engineers and scientists transition into other ways to get us to turn on the lights and get our cars moving — you guys can figure it out, but you have to be open to it,” Obama said.
The RCMP was in charge of providing security for Obama during his appearance in Calgary.
Const. Mike Hibbs said this is standard protocol when a former head of state visits the country.
“We work in conjunction with Secret Service,” Hibbs explained. “I mean, they have some things they have to follow, some protocol with the former president, and we will work with those individuals and that organization to make sure that security is top.”
Seeing all sides
Obama also shared the importance of having a variety of perspectives at the table when making important decisions, like he had to do during his first term as president during the Great Recession.
“Everybody has blind spots,” Obama said.
“The benefit of having people from different perspectives around the room is they will fill in, for the group, each other’s blind spots.”
Obama also emphasized the importance of hearing all sides of an issue.
“If you want to get something done about climate change, you can’t just be talking with the person who’s driving a Prius and eating quinoa. You have to talk to the guy who’s got a pickup truck and has to drive 30 miles to his job and, as a consequence, the price of gas is relevant to him. If you don’t have a sense of his legitimate concerns, you’re not going to be able to build the kind of coalition that will get something done,” he said.
Obama’s approach, as informed by the scientific process, was met with applause from the Calgary audience.
“I am a big believer in basic enlightenment values like reason and logic and facts. I believe in science and I believe in testing your hypotheses, and if something’s not working, you try something different and you apply analytical rigour to problems. I don’t think everything is about opinions. I brought that attitude to bear with most of our problems,” Obama said.
Life after the White House
The afternoon’s host, Dave Kelly, asked the former American president a variety of questions about his time serving in the White House, finding time for family life and his relationship with his wife Michelle — who Barack says looks back fondly on her March 2018 discussion at the Calgary Stampede Corral.
Obama also spoke of his ongoing work with American youth and the Barack Obama Presidential Center, to be located on the south side of Chicago.
“What I discovered during the course of my presidency is most of the problems we face globally don’t get solved not because we don’t have solutions out there. Most of them don’t get solved because people don’t organize themselves to get things done,” Obama said.
“The way to solve that is by developing and training leadership at every level.”
Obama said he believes young people, in the face of tribalistic reaction to rapid worldwide change, are “instinctually more tolerant, open-minded, sophisticated.”
“It’s not just a matter of sending a tweet or a hashtag. We actually have to do a little more than that.”
—With files from Jenna Freeman