From “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life” by Jonathan Alter. Copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Alter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
This year’s wildfires and hurricanes leave no doubt that climate change remains a key issue for a growing number of Americans despite the nation’s deeply polarized politics, as numerous polls have shown. But this is hardly the first time the environment has been a political issue. In fact, the future of the planet was at stake in the presidential contest over 40 years ago—but no one knew it at the time.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was running for reelection against former California Governor Ronald Reagan. The environment was a campaign issue, in part because Reagan had been quoted saying that more than 80 percent of nitrogen oxide air pollution is “caused by trees and vegetation.” (Reagan, the Sierra Club responded, was “just plain wrong.”) Carter, meanwhile, had signed 14 major pieces of environmental legislation, including the first funding of alternative energy, the first federal toxic waste cleanup (the Super Fund), the first fuel economy standards and important new laws to fight air, water and other forms of pollution. He also protected California’s redwood forest and 100 million acres in the Alaska Lands bill, which doubled the size of the National Park Service.
But there was one big environmental issue he didn’t have time to confront—a challenge that was unknown then outside the scientific community but would eventually become of critical importance around the world.
Carter had been a nuclear engineer in the Navy and—while other politicians played golf—he spent his spare time reading scientific publications. In 1972, when he was governor of Georgia, he underlined path-breaking articles in the journal “Nature” about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
When he became President, Carter was the first global leader to recognize the problem of climate change. In 1977, scratching his itch as a planner and steward of the earth, he commissioned the Global 2000 Report to the President, an ambitious effort to explore environmental challenges and the prospects of “sustainable development” (a new phrase) over the next 20 years. As part of that process, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued three reports contending with global warming, the last of which—issued the week before Carter left office—was devoted entirely to the long-term threat of what a handful of scientists then called “carbon dioxide pollution.”
The report, written by Gus Speth, Carter’s top aide on the environment, urged “immediate action” and included calculations on CO2 emissions in the next decades that proved surprisingly accurate. The large-scale burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels could lead to “widespread and pervasive changes in global climatic, economic, social, and agricultural patterns,” the CEQ report concluded with great prescience.
One recommendation—covered in the very last paragraph of a New York Times story that ran on page A13—encouraged industrialized nations to reach agreement on the safe maximum level of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The CEQ report suggested trying to limit global average temperature to 2°C above preindustrial levels—precisely the standard agreed to by the nations of the world 38 years later in the Paris climate accord.
With these facts in hand, Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter in the 1980 election takes on a tragic dimension: Carter had acted on every other CEQ report issued in the previous four years with aggressive legislation and executive orders. He almost certainly would have done so on this one, too, had he been reelected. Gains made under Carter’s presidential leadership in the early 1980s might have bought the planet precious time. Instead, for the next 12 years, under Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the U.S. government would view global warming as largely unworthy of study, much less action. Then came 25 years of stop-and-start efforts under administrations of both parties, followed by a return to denial under Trump and, then, re-entry into the Paris process under President Joe Biden.
There are lessons here for the present. Carter was a political failure—confronted with a bad economy, the Iran hostage crisis, a divided Democratic Party and a talented challenger in Reagan—but he was a substantive and visionary success.
It took a while for public opinion to catch up to him. After being burned in effigy in Alaska, he received only 26 percent of the statewide vote in the 1980 presidential election. But by 2000, a billion-dollar tourism industry had blossomed there, and polls showed residents favored Carter’s landmark achievement. When he visited that year, his speech was interrupted five times for standing ovations.
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In 1979, Carter placed solar panels on the roof of the West Wing of the White House. After Reagan came to office, he cut funding for green energy and his chief of staff, Donald T. Regan, describing the panels as “just a joke,” took them down. It wasn’t until 2010 that President Obama put up a new generation of solar units. Now, solar is the fastest-growing source of electricity in the United States.
Joe Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter for president in 1976, when Carter ran a campaign based on “healing” after the Watergate scandal and promised not to lie. Biden ran on similar themes and has now passed the most ambitious climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, in the nation’s history, to combat climate change and finance the transition to renewable energy.
Jimmy Carter’s example suggests that looking over the horizon might light our path to a better future—but also that, without political victory, the chance to realize that future can easily slip away.