Yes, team Obama actively muzzled Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and many others on climate change in its first term, as we’ve long reported.
But in a lengthy piece, “Locked in the Cabinet,” Politico explains that the West Wing put the leash on almost all of their cabinet secretaries. It just so happened that “the smaller dogs proved easier to muzzle.”
And that brings us to today’s climate quiz. Is it harder to be the chief of state for an island nation threatened by climate change — or to be a cabinet secretary threatened by the White House Chief of Staff for talking about climate change?
Sure, people like the once and hopefully future Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, featured in the must-see movie “The Island President” — now available on Netflix and iTunes — have to contend with rising seas that will destroy their entire nation. And sure Nasheed’s had to contend with being jailed before being elected, an ousting in 2012, and legally questionable delays right now before a final election that may put him back in the presidency.
But Nasheed never had to contend with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and the White House muzzle masters. Politico opens its piece subtitled “The worst job in Barack Obama’s Washington,” with a story about how Chu joined team Obama on an April 2009 trip to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas. The focus was economic development, and so Chu didn’t have a scheduled address.
Responding to media queries, a young staffer named Josh Earnest persuaded a reluctant White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to let Chu talk.
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 [deputy Chief of Staff] Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”
This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. First off, the media had already begun to lose interest in climate change by then, so Chu’s supposed faux pas was more faux than pas. Try googling to find any significant media coverage whatsoever of Chu’s remarks in Trinidad.
Second, much as I admire this Politico piece, talking about climate change is hardly an insult to island nations. Quite the reverse. Here is part of the official transcript of Chu’s press conference:
Q: Secretary Chu, so did any of the leaders, especially from this part of the world, talk about the specific concerns about rising ocean levels?
SECRETARY CHU: Yes, very much so. I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes. This is something that is very, very scary to all of us; that if you consider what has been happening, especially in the polar regions in the north, and you look at the predictions of the IPCC beginning in 1990, this is something they didn’t do so well. It’s melting considerably faster than anyone predicted ten years ago.
So we are terribly afraid there will be an increase in temperature if the ice in the Antarctica and Greenland melt. This is bad news. If Greenland melts — it’s two or three kilometers thick — we’re looking at a seven-meter sea level rise around the world. Some island states will disappear.
So there was specific — at the lunch today, there was specific discussion represented from the island states that this is of great concern, and the island states in the world represent — I remember this number — one-half of 1 percent of the carbon emissions in the world. And they will — some of them will disappear. So this is pretty serious business.
The reason leaders like Nasheed go to extreme lengths like holding a cabinet meeting underwater is that they are desperate to get public attention for this existential issue. It’s climate silence that is an insult to them.
Heck, it was Obama himself who promised in 2008 that future generations would see his election as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow“! Apparently, Obama was going to achieve this feat without actually talking about what caused the oceans to rise in the first place.
Politico adds that on the trip home, Messina confronted Chu:
“What did you say?” Messina demanded, according to a witness. “What were you thinking?” he yelled. “And how, exactly, was this fucking on message?”
Yes, I know, what could be more unintentionally hilarious than the White House lecturing anyone on messaging? One word: Obamacare.
As a painfully amusing aside, team Obama was confident that the actual rollout of Obamacare would erase any of the PR problems created by their catastrophically failed messaging on it. Seriously. Makes one wonder how different things might be if Obama had chosen energy and climate legislation over healthcare….
Based on my discussions with leading journalists, as well as current and former Administration staff, this White House is the worst at communications in the past 3 decades (see “here“). See also “Drew Westen Spells Out Obama’s Catastrophic Failure of Messaging” and Robert Becker’s “Obama Team: “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Messages” and “Lakoff Slams Obama’s Dreadful Messaging.”
Indeed, the Obama White House has been the worst of both possible worlds. They are dreadful at messaging BUT they think they are terrific at messaging, so much so that they shut down anybody else in the administration that might actually be good at messaging. How else to explain things like “public option” and “cap-and-trade” and “winning the future”?
Today however the two muzzle masters Emanuel and Axelrod are gone. The polls have utterly vindicated those of us who have been arguing that talking about climate change is a winning strategy. And Obama himself has ended his climate silence (see ‘Invest, Divest’: Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk In Speech Unveiling Plan To Cut Carbon Pollution).
The Politico notes that “inside the West Wing of the White House Chu was considered a smart guy who said lots of stupid things.” Maybe he was in fact a smart guy who said smart things.