Want to Piss Off the White House? Talk About Climate Change

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/7365530458/">Pete Souza</a>/White House

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Politico’s Glenn Thrush has a revealing new piece on the pressures of being in President Obama’s cabinet—a supposedly fun thing most of its members will never do again. There a lot of nuggets in there, but one in particular stood out: the White House’s private outrage at former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu’s impromptu decision to talk about climate change while visiting an island nation uniquely threatened by it. On a trip to Trinidad and Tobago with the president, a staffer persuaded press secretary Robert Gibbs to let Chu answer a few questions:

Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us…The island states…some of them will disappear.”

Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

Emanuel didn’t kill Chu, although that would have made for a more interesting story.

A couple things stand out here. Trinidad and Tobago is seriously threatened by climate change, and given the efforts of similarly situated island nations—the Maldives, Tuvalu—to call attention to the crisis, it’s hardly an insult to use the occasion of a trip to the country to talk about it. (Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, is 10 feet above sea level.) But this underscores just how narrow the White House’s thinking was at that time. Does anyone actually remember Steven Chu speaking out about sea level rises in Trinidad and Tobago? Did it really distract from the president’s economic message? Were there mass protests in the streets of Port of Spain? Did it delay pending legislation or result in any electoral setbacks? The reality is that talking about climate change probably isn’t going to be a catastrophe, no matter how awkward it might seem at the time—but not talking about climate change most definitely will.

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

payment methods

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate