A new oral history project focused on former President Barack Obama’s administration was released on Wednesday, with the first installment centering on climate.
The project consists of work completed by Incite, an interdisciplinary social science research institute at Columbia University, since 2019. The work from the past four years includes 470 interviews and about 1,100 hours of audio and video with senior officials, policymakers, activists and others involved with the Obama administration.
Peter Bearman, director of Incite at Columbia University, said the project was motivated by “an urge to decenter the experience of the president and center the study around the experiences and interactions of people both inside and outside of the administration.
He said many of the narratives in the first installment speak about key environmental and energy issues that took place during the Obama administration, including the Keystone Pipeline, food and food security, energy and international climate negotiations, such as the Paris Agreement.
Climate is one of about 40 issue domains the project focuses on. Other sets of interviews on topics such as health care and Black politics are planned to be released throughout the rest of this year and into 2024.
During a Wednesday discussion previewing the oral history project, panelists focused on climate change and the environment and discussed how climate was prominent in the Obama years, from his initial campaign and throughout his years in office.
“We pushed very hard during the campaign to raise the climate issue,” environmental activist Frances Beinecke said. “And we raised it during the primaries, and then when he was the candidate we raised it. During that period, we also worked on the platform, on the Democratic platform, making sure that climate was a main feature of the platform.”
The initial release consists of 17 of the hundreds of interviews. Former US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Gina McCarthy and environmental activist Bill McKibben are among those interviewed in the first release of the series.
Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to Obama, referred to climate as “one of the largest threats and concerns” and “one of the biggest priorities” for Obama.
“By preserving these narratives, we ensure that future generations have access to the lived experiences and lessons learned,” Jarrett said during the event. “But ultimately, these interviews will serve a lot as an important record for both historians and scholars, to not just learn, but to learn with an act towards the future.”