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From Carter to Obama: A new context for a message on energy, economy and environment

Robert Chester, lecturer, history department | August 14, 2015

More than 35 years ago, President Jimmy Carter gave a courageous yet unpopular speech outlining the environmental and economic forces threatening American affluence. He acknowledged his conversation with the American people as “an unpleasant talk  . . . about an . . . unprecedented problem in our history.”

He went on to tell Americans what he thought they needed to know about present and future energy security, production and consumption – rather than telling them what they wanted to hear about better times waiting around the corner.

Carter shows off White House solar panels, 1979

President Carter shows off new White House solar panels, 1979. (Courtesy: Jimmy Carter Library)

Suburbanization, highway expansion, and the move by American auto manufacturers to build cars with larger V8 engines and far more horsepower after World War II all encouraged increased gasoline consumption. Post-war suburbanization and the proliferation of electric appliances helped fuel American consumption of electricity, which roughly doubled every decade between 1920 and 1970. The rise of plastics and other synthetics developed from petroleum provided manufacturers versatile materials from which they fashioned a dizzying array of consumer products for an increasingly prosperous and disposable society.

Not ready for the message

Believing they were the victims of larger structural forces eroding their privileged standard of living, many in Carter’s audience resented his suggestion that they acknowledge their responsibility for the energy crisis. They didn’t want to hear suggestions about using energy more efficiently, and refused to heed his warnings that energy would become increasingly expensive.

President Carter was convinced that such a candid conversation was necessary during this protracted period of economic crisis in which the United States appeared to be entering a new era of energy scarcity. In response, the President and Congress even created a new federal agency, the Department of Energy.

During the 1970s, federal legislation required stricter fuel-economy standards. In addition, power plant and auto-emissions regulations became more robust as Congress expanded the statutory framework for preventing, reducing and mitigating industrial pollution. However, Americans generally continued with business as usual, even in the face of the Arab-Oil embargo of 1973 and other shocks to the price of energy.

Carter’s predictions about energy scarcity may have been premature, but the public response to it had more to do with American anxieties about the potential end of affluence predicated on cheap and abundant energy. Americans expected the President to solve their problems, not to preach conservation and collective sacrifice. They thought they had sacrificed enough and were tired of tightening their belts.

Same song, different tune

The first week of August, 2015, President Obama gave a speech eerily similar to Carter’s speech of April, 1977.

Citing the need to reduce carbon emissions to arrest the accelerating rate of global environmental change, President Obama declared that “no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a changing climate.” Pointing to excellent work done by the Environmental Protection Agency and its director, Gina McCarthy, he spoke to the need to assess and propose solutions with deliberate study and rigor while implementing new policies with the urgency the problem demands.

Much has changed since Carter’s speech, including the emergence of a scientific consensus on the existence of climate change and irrefutable evidence of the leading role played by carbon emissions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. The dire economic and environmental situation we confront today provides President Obama with a far more environmentally critical and politically potent threat with which to scare those who remain resistant to fundamental changes to American business, technology, transportation, community planning and everyday energy practices.

The particulars of how climate change will transform regional environments remains to be seen, but the broader trends of vanishing glaciers, submerged islands, receding coastlines, and accelerated species extinctions appears almost certain and raises the stakes of long-term thinking and planning and short-term actions.

President Carter spoke to issues of intergenerational equity when he told Americans: “We must not be selfish or timid.” President Obama said something similar, but was more specific and pleading than vague and accusatory. He laid out concrete examples that laymen could understand, and then demonstrated how changes are already demonstrable and damaging.

Making it personal

“One year doesn’t make a trend,” said Obama, “but 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have fallen within the first 15 years of this century. Climate change is no longer just about the future that we’re predicting for our children or our grandchildren; it’s about the reality that we’re living with every day, right now.”

Earth from space

(NASA photo)

By personalizing the crisis and situating diverse but related issues — climate change, carbon emissions, energy extraction and consumption, electricity generation, industrial pollution, economic and technological innovation, and air quality — the broader framework of public health, job creation, child welfare and our moral obligations to future generations, this speech may have been Obama’s greatest rhetorical achievement as President.

Whether the proposed remedies of his Clean Power Plan will receive adequate support in Congress to implement meaningful policy reforms is unclear. The energy industry as currently constituted has lots of money to spend heavily influencing hundreds of legislators to resist reform.

Many sea changes

Tropical Storm Sandy, and other extreme weather events that may reflect the destabilizing effects of climate change, have converted many former skeptics, especially those who felt the devastating impacts first hand. Meanwhile, predictions about rising sea levels sound all the more menacing in the aftermath of such environmental disasters. Along with melting polar icecaps and rising ocean levels, there has been a cultural and economic sea change since the late ’70s.

Media coverage of and public outrage over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Fukushima Daiichi meltdown and explosion have combined with rising energy prices, military intervention and political instability in oil-rich countries, and a growing environmental consciousness to make today’s audience more receptive to Obama’s message.

These shifting attitudes stem in large part from the increased concerns among younger generations about the habitability and health of the world they will inherit. However, it is up to us to help them build a more secure bridge to a more sustainable and perhaps better future. We can’t get there if we don’t try.

Comments to “From Carter to Obama: A new context for a message on energy, economy and environment

  1. There is a lot of debate whether energy, economy and environment has any role to play in global warming. However, I think we all can agree its important to take care of the environment. We wouldn’t allow our homes to be filled and piled with trash, why should we allow it on the outside?

  2. Great piece professor. I remember you touching very briefly on the comparison between the two speeches during lecture this summer and the contrast in public reception of the messages. This piece really extends on that, and as a young person, it’s nice to know that public sentiment is no long that of Carter’s time but rather the public is more open to reform and talk of sacrifice and sustainability, even if the energy industry is not.

    My hope is that through collective action, consumers can overcome the power and mass resources of the energy industry; I guess that’s up to us.

  3. The rising water levels and the melting of the North Pole icebergs, how can those be co-related? When ice melts, it’s volume lowers. And it is known that most of the iceberg is underwater.

    • Much of the ice is trapped in vast packs of ice, spreading the area the size of continents, with much of it above sea level (north pole), and even on land (south pole). For your argument: the density of ice is 92% of that of water, on average, icebergs are 90% below sea level, so technically, they add to the see level when they melt, but as I explained before, they only do a bit.

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