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Jimmy Carter's Solar Panels And The Mellow Allman Brothers Climate Paradise That Could've Been
OK, some of that headline may not be scrupulously fact-checked.
The Treachery Of Memory
Memory is weird. Lots of us remember that Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House, and that Ronald Reagan had them removed — a very handy shorthand for the environmental consciousness of the two presidents and their political parties’ attitudes since forever.
In the decades since, opposing any kind of action to protect the environment has become a bedrock belief of Republicans, to the point where “rolling coal” has become a funny way to annoy bicyclists and Prius drivers, while Democrats actually went and did something about climate with the passage last year of the Inflation Reduction Act, which the head of the International Energy Agency called the world’s “most important climate action after the Paris 2015 agreement.”
Along the way, some folks have grafted what they know about today’s climate crisis onto their memory of Carter’s visionary endorsement of solar energy, resulting in not-quite accurate laments about how Jimmy Carter tried to warn us about climate change, but Ronald Reagan (or George Bush, or maybe Dick Cheney) denied the scientific consensus and took down the solar panels from the White House, condemning us to decades of inaction on climate.
Look, they mean well:
Those imagined histories may also be tinged by recent rediscoveries of energy company records showing that scientists for Big Oil knew by the 1970s that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels was measurably warming the planet, but the oil companies plowed money into propagating disinformation and doubt instead, and in the process spread far more pernicious untruths than merely getting the details wrong about Carter’s solar panels.
Sweaters And Solar Panels
From the moment he took office, Carter was focused on tackling what was then called the “energy shortage” following the OPEC oil embargo of 1973-74, when it looked to many experts that the world was running out of oil. He famously wore a sweater for his “fireside chat” in February 1977 and urged people to bundle up and keep their thermostats a little lower to save energy.
In April of that year he gave a nationally televised speech — back when the whole nation watched because there weren’t 200 other channels — warning of “our rapidly shrinking resources,” and calling on Americans to approach the energy challenge as “the moral equivalent of war,” which smartasses mocked with the acronym “MEOW.” Carter warned, inaccurately as it turned out, that the world was running out of gas and oil, and called for a massive effort to develop renewable energy sources like solar power.
Weirdly, from today’s carbon-conscious perspective at least, Carter also called for a two-thirds annual increase in production of “plentiful coal,” as long as it was done with sensitivity to the environment. Congress enacted some of the ideas in Carter’s proposed energy policy, like tax credits for solar water heaters and the creation of a strategic petroleum reserve to cushion the impacts of future oil shocks.
As for the coal thing, biographer Jonathan Alter notes that in 1972, while governor of Georgia, Carter read and underlined “path-breaking articles in the journal Nature about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” and its heat-trapping properties, but maybe he forgot. Global warming just wasn’t yet a central concern for policymakers, but Carter went on to get a lot more information on why more coal wasn’t the answer.
What Jimmy Knew And When He Knew It
A few months after that speech, Carter received a July 1977 briefing memo from his chief science and technology adviser Frank Press about the danger fossil fuels posed for warming the planet. It’s a remarkably prescient document, laying out the basics of the science at the time — and already using the term “Climate Change,” although prefaced by the warning that it could be “Catastrophic.” (Note also the partial stamp at the top saying “THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN.”)
The letter plainly states that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were at the time already 12 percent above those of the pre-industrial era, and rapidly increasing due to burning fossil fuels, resulting in potential global warming between .5 and 5 degrees Celsius. And here we are today at about 1.1 degree C (almost 2 degrees F) already.
The memo also got right at the problem that world leaders would need to solve, and why:
The urgency of the problem derives from our inability to shift rapidly to non-fossil fuel sources once the climatic effects become evident not long after the year 2000; the situation could grow out of control before alternate energy sources and other remedial actions become effective. Natural dissipation of C02 would not occur for a millennium after fossil fuel combustion was markedly reduced.
Press closed by saying that while the state of the science in 1977 “does not justify emergency action to limit the consumption of fossil fuels,” the “potential CO2 hazard” should be part of long-term energy policy, particularly in the development of cleaner energy technologies. (Interestingly, while Press recommended an increase in nuclear energy, he also warned that “over-reliance on a nuclear energy economy” wouldn’t be great, either.)
So what happened after that? As the Guardian reports, Carter ultimately agreed with Energy Secretary James Schlesinger’s assessment that “the policy implications of this issue are still too uncertain to warrant Presidential involvement and policy initiatives,” although Carter did continue to push for greater development of renewable energy as a solution to what he continued to see as a crisis of disappearing fossil fuel reserves. But that wasn’t all.
Bring On The What-Ifs
As Carter biographer Eric Alter points out, Carter didn’t simply sit on what he knew about 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.
The report even recommended that industrialized nations reach an agreement on a maximum safe level of total CO2, and to agree to limit emissions so that total global warming would be no more than 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) over the preindustrial average. As Alter points out, that’s “precisely the standard agreed to by the nations of the world 38 years later in the Paris climate accord,” although with a goal — no longer likely to be met, unfortunately — of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F), which will be plenty bad enough.
As Alter says, this adds a “tragic dimension” to Ronald Reagan’s electoral landslide victory in 1980, as if Reagan’s turning over the economy to the investor class weren’t tragedy enough. Carter, he says, had “acted on every other CEQ report issued in the previous four years with aggressive legislation and executive orders,” so there’s little reason to think he’d have ignored this one, either. It’s certainly a dramatic enough “road not taken” to make you wonder what the world might look like if, say, the Iran hostage rescue mission hadn’t failed and Carter had somehow been reelected. (As any fan of alternative history knows, though, the result probably would be nuclear war or murderous giant spiders from outer space.)
Those Solar Panels
Let’s close with Jimmy Carter dedicating that solar water heating system on the roof of the West Wing on June 21, 1979, in a daytime ceremony that he joked he’d arranged to be “illuminated by solar power.”
It’s some lovely visionary stuff:
“Today, in directly harnessing the power of the Sun, we're taking the energy that God gave us, the most renewable energy that we will ever see, and using it to replace our dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.
“There is no longer any question that solar energy is both feasible and also cost-effective. […] Solar energy will not pollute our air or water. We will not run short of it. No one can ever embargo the Sun or interrupt its delivery to us. But we must work together to turn our vision and our dream into a solar reality.”
Not anticipating that Reagan’s chief of staff, Don Regan, would dismiss the solar panels as “just a joke” and have them removed during roof repairs in 1986, Carter looked down the energy road and predicted,
“In the year 2000, the solar water heater behind me, which is being dedicated today, will still be here supplying cheap, efficient energy. 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 just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people: harnessing the power of the Sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”
Worse, Reagan reversed the clean energy initiatives Carter had put in place, a far more concrete rejection of renewable energy than the symbolic removal of the panels.
Solar panels would return to the White House eventually. In 2002, the National Park Service installed solar electricity and water heating systems elsewhere on the White House grounds, although the George W. Bush administration chose not to publicize that. In 2014, Barack Obama installed a photovoltaic system on the White House roof.
And in 2017, Jimmy Carter installed a solar farm on 10 acres of his peanut farm; it provides about half the electricity for Plains. Carter, who’s now in hospice care at home, celebrated his birthday quietly at home with Rosalyn, his wife of 77 years, and with his children and grandchildren. I’ll assume the party was lit by solar, too.
And now we’re finally on the way to the energy transition that Carter called for, 40 years late and in a world already transformed by climate change. There are so many incredibly smart people developing clean energy technologies to meet the challenge that, awful though the situation is, the coming energy transition still feels like, as Carter suggested, an exciting adventure.
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