Carter and the climate
Throughout his presidency, Jimmy Carter pushed for policies to mitigate climate change against the backdrop of an oil crisis. Today, 50 years on from the ‘70s oil crisis, the effects of Carter’s actions can still be felt.
The solar panels he installed on the roof of the White House in 1979 stood as visible symbols of Carter’s environmentalism. This show of faith in solar has been mirrored by 21st-century leaders, with both Bush and Obama re-introducing solar power to the White House in various forms.
Today, Joe Biden, who endorsed Carter’s presidential bid in 1976, continues the push for renewables with the Inflation Reduction Act
Governments around the world attempt to attract private companies with tax incentives in order to meet crucial renewable energy targets. Carter’s original solar panels may sit in museums as a marker of the past, but his championing of renewables was forward-looking. Further efforts Carter made include providing tax incentives for the downsizing of passenger vehicles. He also made great strides in conservation, passing the largest land conservation bill in US history during his final year as president.
At the time, there was some opposition to Carter’s focus on green policies, as the memory of the 1973 OPEC oil crisis made energy security a key issue among the electorate. The 1979 Iranian oil crisis provided another nudge for government agencies to strengthen the domestic oil supply. At first glance, it seemed this was done in keeping with Carter’s green sensibilities – windfall taxes were levied on oil producers, which helped fund research and development for the new Department of Energy (DoE).
Upon closer inspection, however, some aspects of the fight for energy security ran counter to the climate-friendly policies Carter had pursued
The DoE funded the development of technologies such as diamond-studded drill bits and directional drilling, which were key to the eventual commercialisation of fracking.
In regard to energy security, the DoE’s investment in unconventional oil and gas has paid off. Economists Manuel Frondel and Marco Horvath posit that increased adoption of fracking since the late 2000s has tempered oil prices in the long run, while the US has become a net exporter of petroleum today. However, the environmental impacts of fracking, including groundwater contamination and a heightened risk of earthquakes, have soured public opinion in parts of the US.
Perhaps Carter’s most striking climate action was his conservation effort in Alaska. In 1978, he moved to protect 56 million acres of land in Alaska by declaring new national monuments, sidestepping Congress in the process. Many Alaskans felt that such a move took away land which was rightfully theirs and showed their feelings in protest. Hundreds lined the streets in marches and protestors burned Jimmy Carter in effigy. Despite the backlash, Carter pushed ahead and, in a final climate victory, passed a law through Congress in 1980. In total, over 100 million acres of Alaskan land was protected.
A road not taken
For much of his climate policy, Carter leaned on reports from the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). In Carter’s final few weeks as president, the CEQ released a report suggesting a prescient 2°C global temperature target. Against the backdrop of the Iranian oil and hostage crises, Carter had lost the election in 1980 and was unable to act on the report. The Paris Agreement came 35 years later.
During the 1979 unveiling of the solar panels, Jimmy Carter suggested a future in which the panels sat in a museum, representing “a road not taken.” In 2023, as policy sprints to catch up with targets suggested decades ago, one can’t help but wonder how today’s world would differ had Jimmy Carter served one more term.