“My first announcement,” the President prefaced, “is you should all take off your jackets.” He removed his own, provoking cheers from the small, perspiring crowd. “It’s not that sexy,” he said. It may not have been ‘that sexy,’ but it was that hot. When Obama took his place on the steps of the Old North building at 1:44 on Tuesdayafternoon, the temperature in Georgetown University’s Dahlgren Quadrangle was an even 90 degrees.
The location was chosen for its history; thirteen other presidents, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, have spoken on the steps of the Old North building. It’s easy to see why. The quadrangle is beautiful in that early-America, white-columns-and-green-grass way. And, of course, as a quadrangle, it’s closed off, which makes security’s job easier. Beneath helicopters hovering in the hot air (they provided the crowd’s only and infrequent shade), attendees joked about turning into carbon gas themselves and how quickly they could access Georgetown Hospital if they suffered heat stroke. Obama was fortunate to be addressing a crowd where Washington once stood and not wearing what Washington once did – black velvet and dark wool.
Obama’s speech covered the obvious bases. He reminded his audience of the progress his administration has made in the last five years: reducing federal agency greenhouse gas emissions and overall gas emissions by 15 and 17 percent, respectively. He bemoaned the fact that power plants release unlimited and unrestricted carbon emissions into the atmosphere. As Obama talked about the Keystone Pipeline, the history of bipartisan efforts to prioritize climate change, and the Clean Air Act of 1970, his speech was peppered with unusual punctuation: POTUS pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his face over half a dozen times.
He was not the only visibly uncomfortable attendee. In the Dahlgren Quadrangle, the temperature was exacerbated by the contribution of body heat from 200-plus guests. An aide to the President frequently removed her glasses to wipe the sweat collecting near the bridge of her nose. Audience members in metal folding chairs fanned themselves and looked up, pleadingly, at the sky. One reporter suffered a reaction to the heat and had to receive medical attention. If there was ever a time to feel urgent concern about global warming, it was on this afternoon which, despite a 30% chance of thunderstorms, delivered only stagnant, humid air.
The Old North building, which was constructed in 1794, seems to share little in common with the structures built by the father of organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, the scene lacked two of Wright’s aesthetics: there was little fluid movement throughout the space, and the integration of architecture and environment was all but graceful. The truism he made famous, though – that form and function should be one – could have justified the discomfort felt during that 1.5-hour-long event. Like the carbon spewing into the atmosphere, the heat, unmitigated and unapologetic, was impossible to ignore.