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As president, Jimmy Carter focused on energy conservation at a time of long gas lines

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The announcement that former President Jimmy Carter is receiving hospice care has us looking back at his time in office. And this morning, we're examining Carter's environmental legacy. Jeff Brady from NPR's Climate Desk joins us. Jeff, President Carter came into office in the '70s, when the U.S. imported a lot of oil. Embargoes used to have my dad cursing at the long lines at gas stations. So how did Carter respond to that?

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: You know, one big thing, he focused on energy conservation. And that seems like a given today, but it wasn't really on Americans' minds after the 1950s and '60s, when it seemed like all that oil would always flow. But the Arab oil embargo came in 1973 over U.S. support for Israel, and energy experts started worrying that oil and natural gas might run out. So shortly after Carter took office in 1977, he delivered what has become known as the sweater speech. He sat by a fireplace, wore a cardigan sweater and addressed the country on television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIMMY CARTER: All of us must learn to waste less energy. Simply by keeping our thermostats, for instance, at 65 degrees in the daytime and 55 degrees at night, we could save half the current shortage of natural gas.

BRADY: You know, some people made fun of him for this. That's how unusual the idea of energy conservation was at the time. Another unusual thing Carter did - he famously put solar panels on the White House in 1979.

MARTÍNEZ: And we have a clip from that press event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: Today, in directly harnessing the power of the sun, we are 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.

MARTÍNEZ: So whatever happened to those solar panels?

BRADY: You know, they were removed less than a decade later during Ronald Reagan's Republican administration. Reagan beat Carter in a landslide election and came in with different policies. Since then, the country's conservation and alternative energy efforts, they've progressed in fits and starts, depending on who's president. I talked with Amy Myers Jaffe. She directs the Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab at New York University. She says Carter made the U.S. a leader on renewable energy, like wind and solar, but she says that didn't last.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: Had the United States stayed the course and we had not had volatility in our federal efforts in alternative energy, we would maybe be still the premier country for alternative energy.

BRADY: Instead, she says, the U.S. is playing catch-up with countries like Denmark and Spain on wind energy, and China for solar and electric vehicles.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Jeff, ultimately, what was the Carter administration's record on climate change?

BRADY: He actually received a memo the summer after he took office in 1977 from an adviser in his administration who warned carbon dioxide from fossil fuels could lead to, quote, "catastrophic climate change." But the next day, Carter's energy secretary downplayed that and said more research was needed before the president got involved. Carter seems to have paid attention to that. His focus was more on securing energy supplies during his administration. So overall, his environmental legacy is a mixed one. But we also see President Carter's fingerprints on the aggressive climate change policies the Biden administration is pursuing and implementing today.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Jeff Brady from NPR's Climate Desk. Jeff, thanks.

BRADY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.