‘A road not taken’ – The US President who predicted climate change

by Cameron Macpherson

Jimmy Carter addressing the public in 1978. Photograph, Joe Haupt. Flickr

With the wheels of the climate emergency spiraling out of control. As world leaders scramble to meet the target global warming temperature of 1.5 degrees, agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit. Year upon year, there’s an increase in natural disasters caused by climate change. Perpetual wildfires in California and Australia. Cyclones sweep the Caribbean, central Africa and the Pacific Islands with such high frequency they could be doing laps of the Earth. As we all become desensitized to these news stories broadcasting the Earth, our Earth, collapsing in front of us, one might ask oneself: How did we get here? Why did no one see this? Why did no world leaders attempt to avoid this catastrophe of a situation? Well, there was.

When it comes to US presidents, a few names may come to mind. Abraham Lincoln, with the  abolishment of slavery being a landmark moment in history. George Washington, JFK, Barack Obama, and perhaps even Ronald Reagan all perhaps come to mind when people think of former presidents. However, one president who’s pro-environmental stance is often forgotten is Jimmy Carter. 

“A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

Carter’s speech when installing solar panels to the White House, 1979

A soft spoken man, Carter was a one term President between 1977 and 1981. He is commonly associated with the Iranian hostage crisis, the 1979 oil crisis caused by the Iranian revolution, and sadly his landslide loss to Ronald Regan in 1981. However, what many people don’t know about Carter is that he was one of the first world leaders to acknowledge climate change as a clear and present danger to the fate of humanity. During his 4 years in the White House, Carter arguably did more to address the issues facing the environment than any President before or after him. It is for this reason that I feel it’s important to honour Carter’s effort, so we can learn what years of not listening to those speaking harsh truths can cause to our planet. 

Born and raised on a peanut farm in rural Georgia, Carter had somewhat humble beginnings. The farm had no running water, electricity, or insulation, meaning Carter had developed a hard work ethic from a young age. As he learned to live off the land that the farm provided him and his family, Carter developed a deep connection with nature and the value of conservation. A value that he would carry with him through the rest of his life and most importantly through his Presidency term. 

During the second world war, Carter served in the Navy as a nuclear engineer. In that time he developed the habit of reading the most recent scientific journals. This habit stayed with him into his Presidency and led him to provide millions of funding towards scientific research in fields such as climate change, renewable energy, and many more. 

Carter was aware that oil was not sustainable and our reliance on it would have massive negative implications on our future. As a result of the Iran and Iraq war, oil export to the US was restricted and created an oil crisis. Leading to a massive increase in prices and long waiting lines at petrol stations. During this time, Carter set the goal of deriving at least 20% of the US’s total energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. However, that target would not be met by the US until 2019; Scotland achieved 35% of its energy coming from renewables in 2021.  It was ambitious targets like this that showcase Carter’s vision. Because, if the target was met in 2000,the impact of having a global superpower like the US, who currently stand 2nd on the list of biggest carbon dioxide emitters, drawing so much energy from renewables, who knows how many other countries would have invested in renewables sooner. 

Carter was also a staunch conservationist, ushering in bills to protect America’s redwood forest. Despite opposition from logging businesses, Carter passed a bill that protected 48’000 acres of redwood forest trees.  Further evidence for Carter being ahead of his time was his installation of solar panels in the White House in 1979. 

It’s the middle of June. The sun is pounding down on the lush green grass of the White House lawn. A crowd lingers. Ripe beads of sweat perch on the edges of journalists’ brows, secret service men fan themselves with rolled newspapers, and a President stands before a fleet of solar panels. 

“A generation from now, this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

There are few times in history, where you can look back at quotes and at a time and see the literal fork in the road. What could have been? If Carter hadn’t lost to Reagan. Would the world have been introduced to cleaner forms of energy much sooner? Resulting in climate change being mitigated considerably. There’s no way to know. All we know is that Carter lost his re-election bid to Reagan and a lot of the strides Carter made in his term came undone. Increased scientific funding on climate change, preservation of natural land, implementing renewable energy. Which is so disheartening and aggravating, because had this not been the case, we may not have found ourselves in this disaster of a climate emergency.

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