Photo courtesy of Carter Center

Jimmy Carter, The Most Eco-Friendly President Of Our Times

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He could identify every bird in the trees of his parents’ peanut farm in Plains, Georgia. He had a pet alligator and enjoyed trips to the Okefenokee Swamp, the largest wetland in the South and also the biggest area of US public land off-limits to development. The most eco-friendly President of the modern era, Jimmy Carter drew upon his lifelong love of nature to govern. He was keenly aware of a sense of responsibility to pass on the land, water, and forests in a better condition than he and we inherited them.

His defense of nature set him apart from most other occupants of the Oval Office.

In his 1988 memoir An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections, Carter reflected on the importance of nature in his own life and the need to preserve it for future generations. “I have never been happier, more exhilarated, at peace, rested, inspired, and aware of the grandeur of the universe and the greatness of God than when I find myself in a natural setting not much changed from the way He made it.”

Early Years of Governing & Environmental Stewardship

As Governor and with the support of the Georgia Conservancy, Carter established the Georgia Heritage Trust, which identified key areas for conservation and protection by the State. The program was successful in protecting Ossabaw Island as a State Heritage Preserve, adding critical acreage to the recently-dedicated Panola Mountain State Conservation Park, and setting aside more than 300 acres along the Chattahoochee River in Metro Atlanta for preservation.

Guided by his understanding of the symbiotic relationship of nature and humans, then-Governor Carter vetoed a Georgia General Assembly-supported US Army Corps of Engineers project water reclamation project along the Flint River between Upson and Talbot counties. The proposed dam at Sprewell Bluff would have flooded one of the most scenic river valleys in the state and would have posed a significant threat to native species such as the shoals spider-lily and shoal bass.

Carter knew those waters, as he had spent time canoeing the river.

The Eco-Friendly President Tried To Move A Nation Away From Fossil Fuels

When he became President, Carter was the first global leader to recognize the problem of climate change. In 1977, he commissioned the Global 2000 Report to the President, an ambitious effort to explore environmental challenges and the prospects of the newly coined “sustainable development” over the next 20 years. It concluded that problems such as pollution, overpopulation, global warming, and other environmental issues posed a severe threat to the future of humanity and called for international cooperation in solving these problems.

The report attracted worldwide attention, and, as a consequence, scientists and the concerned public urged the president to act quickly and decisively against environmental destruction, which the report predicted would take place on a dramatic scale by the year 2000.

As part of that process, the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) issued 3 reports contending with global warming, the last of which was devoted entirely to the long-term threat of what a handful of scientists then called “carbon dioxide pollution.”  In fact, the CEQ suggested trying to limit global average temperature to 2°C above preindustrial levels; this would be exactly the standard agreed to by the nations of the world 35 years later in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Carter urged Americans to turn down their thermostats while sporting a sweater. In a move less symbolic and more enduring, he signed a bill creating the Energy Department, which grew from a weak agency to today’s complex network of nearly 14,000 employees at headquarters in Washington and 17 national labs nationwide. He called for renewable energy to make up 20% of the nation’s energy mix by 2000 at a time when renewables comprised a mere 7% of energy consumption that year.

“We must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century,” he said in an address to the nation outlining its main goals. His statement aligned with the climate science that originated the previous decade, when the US government funded major science agencies focused on space, atmospheric, and ocean science. Research produced for President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 found that billions of tons of “carbon dioxide is being added to the earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas.”

He established the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area in 1978 in metro Atlanta. Building on his experience with Sprewell Bluff, President Carter used his Presidential powers to de-authorize 16 national water reclamation projects. Carter 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.

UPDATE: We reached out to the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society with a question about Jimmy Carter’s environmental vision, and the director, Prof. Dr. Christof Mauch, replied as follows:

“Carter was a true visionary. As President he stood up for the protection of American rivers and land. He predicted the climate crises, promoted renewable energy and told the public to reduce their consumption of oil when this was anything but popular. His concern was the planet and future of humankind.”

Solar Energy At The White House

In order to model ways to save energy and reduce US dependence on fossil fuels, Carter lowered the thermostat and installed 32 solar panels on the White House. “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 said at the dedication ceremony for the solar panels in 1979.

The price of a solar module was about $76.67/watt. That’s approximately 459 times higher than the price of a solar module today. The eco-friendly President proposed tax credits of up to $2,000 for solar panels to heat homes’ hot water.

Ronald Reagan succeeded Carter as US President and removed the solar panels. It took two decades for President Barack Obama replace them with a new generation set.

Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act

This eco-friendly President pressed Congress to make tens of millions of acres in Alaska off-limits to development. So that the distant land would never be out of mind, he hung a map of Alaska in the Oval Office. Through executive authority in 1978, 56 million Alaskan acres were designated as federally protected under the 1906 Antiquities Act.

With US dependence on foreign oil following the 1973 oil embargo looming, his energy plan, nonetheless, failed to achieve Congressional approval for passage. His tenure in office was marked significantly by the energy crisis, forever signified by long lines at gas stations. With Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election, little follow-up action was taken on environmental issues during the next several years. Despite losing the 1980 election, Carter successfully pressed Congress that year to pass the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, he was able to get support  The landmark law protected more than 100 million acres of Alaskan land, including national parks, national monuments and other sites.

As one of his last public acts, Carter took the unusual step of filing a brief last year to protect the critical habitat for migratory birds, bears, caribou and other species, saying the road would undermine one of his signature achievements.

“My name is Jimmy Carter,” he wrote in the brief. “In my lifetime, I have been a farmer, a naval officer, a Sunday school teacher, an outdoorsman, a democracy activist, a builder, governor of Georgia and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And from 1977 to 1981, I had the privilege of serving as the 39th president of the United States.” Deborah Williams, an environmental consultant who has known Carter for decades, said he was working on the land-swap issue as recently as last month.

Final Thoughts On The Eco-Friendly President

Carter spent his last decade followed by Secret Service fishing, birdwatching, and observing nature. Even in his early 90s, he and his wife Rosalynn went fishing at CNN founder Ted Turner’s ranch every summer, said former Colorado senator and Carter friend Tim Wirth. Carter Family land in the heart of Plains became home to more than 3800 solar panels, which produce enough electricity to power half the town.

President Carter reminded us all of our ever-important role as conservationists. “Future generations of conservation leaders must remember that we are stewards of a precious gift, which is not an unpleasant duty but rather an exciting challenge,” said President Carter. “We must safeguard our land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy freshwater, clean air, scenic mountains and coasts, fertile agricultural lands, and healthy, safe places to live and thrive.”

Carter will “go down, along with people like Theodore Roosevelt and [Franklin D. Roosevelt], as one of the greatest conservation presidents or environmental presidents of all time,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University.

Time magazine adds, “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.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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