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Where Would We Be Now on Climate If Carter Had Won?
Alex Steffen, 4 Jan 08
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So, ever since yesterday, with Regine's post referencing Carter's energy plans and the Kim Stanley Robinson quote about the eco-visions of the 1970s, I've had a thought wedged in my brain:

Where would we be now on climate (leaving aside other issues) if Carter had beaten Reagan? Where would we be now if the PV panels stayed on the White House roof, the Energy Security Act (with it's focus on biofuels, solar, geothermal and energy efficiency) was fully implemented and we had a political debate about energy and the environment that sounded like this:

Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.

It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.

We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.

And it really got me wondering about the road not taken. What sort of an America would we be today on climate issues; how much less worse might our climate predicament be now? And where, too -- given Reagan's atrocious environmental record, the undermining of cities through his "new federalism" and his administration's wholehearted support of suburban sprawl -- might we be on sustainability in general if we'd taken the other path?

I'm not interested in partisan debate, but serious thoughts in the comments (wingnuts go elsewhere) or other people's posts would be most welcome. Where would America be today?

((UPDATE: I asked some friends to comment, pondering in an email "What would America look like if 1970s environmentalism hadn't met such a quick and brutal end? What would sustainability itself look like -- would we all be living in a world of arcologies, living machines, and whalesong? Would America be a green superpower? Or would we simply be Europe, living better on less? Or would we be living in a stagflationary sweater-vest hell? What do you think might be different if that election had gone differently, and what lessons might it have for us this year?" Feel free to leave your own thoughts on those questions as well!))

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First, environmentalism did not "meet a brutal end" with Reagan's election. It was re-born in different forms, notably the grassroots movements that struggled to save ancient forests, and to raise environmental justice issues in low-income communities. And honestly, with James Watt at Interior, contributions to environmental groups boomed as never before.

Second, the Carter energy program was a mix of the beautiful and ugly. The beautiful was the renewable energy program, which founded the success of today's wind and solar industries. If it is Germany, Denmark, Japan and Spain that have primarily benefited, nonetheless the seeds Carter planted sprouted.

The ugly side was a massive synfuels program to use oil shales, tar sands and coal. Perhaps Reagan's sole environmental good deed was to cancel this program because it was an economic boondoggle. Since these forms of fuel production generate twice the greenhouse gases of conventional petroleum, this was a good thing.

Finally, we decry Reagan for his massive increase in military spending, but we should recognize that in the last two years of the Carter Administration the hawks were in ascendence and the miltary buildup got undererway. Reagan only sped it up, reaching levels Carter would have, only a fiscal year or two earlier. Carter made the original commitment to militarily defend the Persian Gulf and its oil, and started the Rapid Deployment Force, which is now U.S. Central Command. This set up the history since, including the Iraq War.

Carter has been the finest ex-president the U.S. ever had, but he was still a mainstream Democrat and key supporter of hawkish Scoop Jackson's 1972 presidential campaign. There were forces operating in the Carter Administration that were not going to produce a sustainability nirvana.

It should be noted that when a Democrat next took the White House, the renewable energy program only gained a modest increase from the GWH Bush administration, Gore's presence in the administration notwithstanding. Budget deficit reduction took priority. The Clinton Administration was notable for the lack of an energy policy or significant initiatives in this area.

Posted by: Patrick Mazza on 4 Jan 08

All I can say is that if Carter would have listened to some of the ideas of Ralph Nader he wouldn't have felt betrayed and most likely he wouldn't have run against Al Gore. I know it's a stretch.

And who knows what Al would have done. He was there in the white house and all he did was to claim the prize for inventing Internet.

Posted by: Neeraj on 4 Jan 08

Charlie Stross says:

Depends what it would have taken for Carter to have won. You seem to
subscribe to the "great man" theory of history -- which, I think, is
inadequate (at best) to explain the outcomes.

Suppose the Iran hostage rescue had worked. Would that have been enough
to guarantee his re-election?

If not,

Suppose the Iran hostage rescue worked _and_ the Republican October
Surprise had been Watergated, discrediting the Reagan campaign. Would
that have been sufficient?

How about, what if the Iranian revolution hadn't happened because
Khomenei had choked on a fish-bone in Paris in 1978?

Once you start asking that kind of question you get lost in a wilderness
of mirrors very rapidly.

One of the problems we face is that the study of American government has
been pretty much Lysenkoized by the far right. Which makes understanding
recent history rather difficult.

For example, the Russian post-Soviet narrative of the collapse of the
USSR is radically different from the common American understanding:,filter.all/pub_detail.asp

That's by Yegor Gaidar, incidentally, sometime Russian prime minister
and sufficiently trusted in the early 1980s that he edited the CPSU's
ideological journal; an outsider/crank he ain't, but as he puts it:

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to
September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the
minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had
decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped
protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in
the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi
Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by
approximately the same amount in real terms.
As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per
year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

So. There you have it; the Soviet narrative is that the Cold War was ended by the *Saudis* and had little or nothing to do with Reagan, other than insofar as the Saudis took US foreign policy into account when re-jigging their oil exports. One might equally well blame Saddam Hussein, for invading Iran, or some nameless Iranian Navy captain for attacking Saudi supertankers in the Straits of Hormuz during the summer of 1984.

But all you hear from most Americans is "Ronald Reagan's military build-up bankrupted and out-competed the Soviets", or -- if they're a bit smarter -- "the build-up Jimmy Carter began and Reagan continued bankrupted etcetera".

So, in summary: I have no fricking idea what effect Jimmy Carter as POTUS 1980-84 would have had on the world today. The shape of the world today depends on vast and weird nonlinear forces that don't give a frog's fart who the president of the United States is. Presidential rhetoric doesn't affect reality, if reality is going in a different direction, whatever George W. Bush and Karl Rove may want to believe when they've snorted one line too many in the White House rest room.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 08

Paul Loeb says:

Interesting question because if the Iran rescue attempt helicopters hadn’t crashed, he probably would have won (or if he hadn’t been suckered into giving the Shah of Iran refuge to begin with and thus infuriating the Iranian students).

We need to remember that Carter’s been a far better and more courageous ex-president than he was as president. By the end he was going down some pretty regressive paths, especially in foreign policy. But I’d guess that depending on who his successor was, we’d at least have gotten a decent jump start on renewable technologies and might indeed be looking a lot more like Germany or Japan or Scandinavia in those areas.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 08

Oh and Patrick, I was very explicitly drawing out the 1970s version of the environmental movement, which did wither after Carter -- obviously environmentalism itself didn't die.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 08

Josh Ellis says:

I think people would have figured out a way to make sustainability ridiculously profitable a lot earlier in the game. And then they would have spent the money on coke and ridiculously expensive krill-based nouvelle cuisine. Imagine a cross between "The Greening Of America" and "American Psycho" and you're getting the picture.

Seriously, though: I've always believed that environmentalism has been crippled by all the weird bullshit attached to it. Sustainability and Native American rights have fuck-all to do with one another, for example, but you would have gotten lynched if you'd suggested that to hippies in the 70s. (I'm not minimizing Native American rights, of course, but you take my point.) Environmentalism has traditionally been handcuffed to the most ridiculous aspects of post-60s Leftism.

We've been changing that in this new century, thanks in large part to people like you and Big Bruce Sterling (and, to a much lesser extent, um, me). But if Carter had been elected? Was the hyper-capitalism of the 80s connected entirely to Reaganism? I like to think my first statement would have been the case. There's a lot of money to be made in cleaning up the environment, and the best part -- if you'll forgive my cynicism -- is that much of it comes from fat government contracts.

I think you would have seen a weirder form of socialist-capitalism emerge. And I do think that we'd be a good deal less consumerist as a society.

And the fiction writer in me deeply digs on the image of an alternate Gordon Gecko, in an Armani suit woven from renewable bamboo fiber and Nia Peeples yuppie glasses made from recycled pressed sunflower seeds, moving billions of dollars between coal-pollution suppression firms and multinational reforesting conglomerates.

Green is good. Green is right. Green works.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 4 Jan 08

I don't know what if... but I do know that the explicit policy of Carter's White House by the end of his term was 20% of our energy from renewables by the year 2000.

Doesn't anybody remember the last report of the President's Council on Environmental Quality that Reagan tried to suppress as he came into power? Gus Speth was the chair then and now he's at Yale School of Forestry. If you ask him what Carter had up his sleeve, I bet he could tell you. If you want to dig deeper, you could ask Dennis Hayes as he was head of the Solar Energy Research Institute that Reagan shut down with extreme prejudice and then repurposed as the National Renewable Energy Lab.

It is disappointing that you guys don't know this slice of history.

Posted by: gmoke on 4 Jan 08

I think Alex's basic contention is right. But there's more to it.

The biggest political problem we need to solve is the public perception that environmentalism is a waste of time. Carter won and lost elections for more reasons than anyone can count, but one of those reasons is that same public perception. Carter was going down the right track in terms of energy production, and history will remember him as prescient for it, but the voting public, historically speaking, is not that prescient. That's one reason Carter lost in 1980.

Nonetheless, the wider question (what would our world look like today if Carter's energy reforms had been the order of the day?) remains intriguing.

Posted by: Philip Welch on 4 Jan 08


No one has any thoughts about what could have been? So far we've been fightin bout what was...

The thing I love most about all my old books are the do-it-yourself projects and attitudes. Say what you will about Christopher Alexander and the late 70's but I'd like to think that if we progressed down that path things could have been different. Imagine a world where each person could contribute to an ever-growing body of knowledge by paying attention, experimenting and sharing findings. It is what I hope for today.

That said, I do agree that the forces of the world have been in motion for a long time and would not have been altered by the election of a president. But, you could argue that the election of a president and a new direction can only be brought about by a change in the undercurrent of societal direction.

Fun to think about Alex, thanks.

Posted by: Daniel Smith on 4 Jan 08

Your question has grown on me the more I've thought about it.

If Carter had won in 1980, one of the most important (and forgotten) government reports in our country's recent history might well have become a blueprint for policy, something that Reagan's victory never allowed.

In the first months of his presidency in 1977, Jimmy Carter directed his Council on Environmental Quality and the State Department to make a study of "the probable changes in the world's population, natural resources, and environment through the end of the century." The effort, which took more than three years and involved a dozen federal agencies, became The Global 2000 Report to the President: Entering the Twenty-First Century.

Reagan's ascension and election in 1980 unfortunately consigned Global 2000 to "the ash heap of history," to borrow a little Reaganite rhetoric. The report was ridiculed and reviled by the right as "globaloney," and for a few years conservative think tanks made a cottage industry out of publishing rebuttals of its analysis and conclusions. But Global 2000 was perhaps the most comprehensive and careful effort ever undertaken by the federal government to model, project, and analyze deeply interdependent trends in population, natural resource use, and environmental quality. Its basic findings hold up remarkably well.

It is hard to find the report today. There is no accessible copy on Google Books, and the Wikipedia entry on the project is laughable. To read the Global 2000 report today, you have to visit that paramount institution of twentieth-century information technology, a public library. It is worth the effort.

What did the report have to say about climate, back in those innocent (or nuclear-winter-shadowed) days? Here's an excerpt from the overview in Volume 1:

"Another environmental problem related to the combustion of fossil fuels (and perhaps also to the global loss of forests and soil humus) is the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. Rising CO2 concentrations are of concern because of their potential for causing a warming of the earth. Scientific opinion differs on the possible consequences, but a widely held view is that highly disruptive effects on world agriculture could occur before the middle of the twenty-first century." (Vol. 1, pp. 36-37)

The report's specific projections of carbon dioxide levels, temperature effects, and potential impacts on human pursuits differ only in particulars from the hard-won scienfific consensus we enjoy today thanks to the IPCC. The basic understanding, the outlines of the problem and the dimensions it would assume, were clear way back when Bill McKibben was still writing copy for the Harvard Crimson.

Would Carter have based his second-term energy and national security policies on this understanding of the risk of climate disruption? It's hard to say, but such high-level attention to interdependent issues of global change has been absent from every administration since, unfortunately including the Clinton-Gore years (negotiating Kyoto notwithstanding). It seems reasonable to expect that a national policy at least acknowledging the energy-climate connection could have been in place more than 25 years ago, and it could have done some good.

Carter was clearly sympathetic to coal-based synfuels, and personally in favor of nuclear power (through his service in the nuclear Navy). But in 1980, U.S. nuclear power had been kicked back on its heels by the Three Mile Island accident, by a potent "No Nukes!" movement, and by the reality of unfavorable economics. It's likely that Carter's second term policies would have moved more strongly toward a central role for renewables, and the gathering of forces favoring commercialization of clean energy that (again!) we have waited 25 years to see.

Then (in a tangent), there's a chance that Carter's second term could have seen diplomatic advance on the substantial accomplishment of his 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and serious progress toward a lasting foundation for Middle East peace. Imagine the benefit to our world in 2008 if the sturdy root of the jihadist impulse and Arab hatred of the West had been cut decades ago, and a real solution achieved with the support of both Palestinians and Israelis. We might not be fighting a trillion-dollar war, with its lamentable toll in lives, resources, goodwill, and distraction from other problems that need our best and most creative response.

The Global 2000 Report is one example of the potential for foresightful policy that we lost in the election of 1980. Jimmy Carter was hardly the most gifted politician of his generation, but he possessed (and still possesses) something of incalculable value to a chief executive: an open mind. May we be lucky enough to elect a leader with that quality in 2008!

Posted by: Ted on 5 Jan 08

RE: Global 2000 and Climate

Here's the relevant text in full from Volume 1 of The Global 2000 Report to the President (pp.36-37):

"Another environmental problem related to the combustion of fossil fuels (and perhaps also to the global loss of forests and soil humus) is the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. Rising CO2 concentrations are of concern because of their potential for causing a warming of the earth. Scientific opinion differs on the possible consequences, but a widely held view is that highly disruptive effects on world agriculture could occur before the middle of the twenty-first century. The CO2 content of the world's atmosphere has increased about 15 percent in the last century and by 2000 is expected to be nearly a third higher than preindustrial levels. If the projected rates of increase in fossil fuel combustion (about 2 percent per year) were to continue, a doubling of the CO2 content of the atmosphere could be expected after the middle of the next century; and if deforestation substantially reduces tropical forests (as projected), a doubling of atmospheric CO2 could occur sooner. The result could be significant alterations of precipitation patterns around the world, and a 2-degree to 3-degree Celsius rise in temperatures in the middle latitudes of the earth. Agriculture and other human endeavors would have great difficulty adapting to such large, rapid changes in climate. Even a 1-degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures would make the earth's climate warmer than it has been any time in the last 1,000 years."

"A carbon dioxide-induced temperature rise is expected to be 3 or 4 times greater at the poles than in the middle latitudes. An increase of 5-degrees to 10-degrees Celsius in polar temperatures could eventually lead to the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps and a gradual rise in sea level, forcing abandonment of many coastal cities."

A much more comprehensive discussion of the state of climate knowledge circa 1979-80 appears in Volume II, the Technical Report. It's awfully hard to say we weren't put on notice about these issues in the Carter years . . .

Posted by: Ted on 5 Jan 08

I agree with the commenter who noted that the green left partially self-destructed. It's not just the country swung to the right-- it's that all of us (I'm talking about you, dear reader) swung to the right. Maybe not in espousing a right wing politics, but more nefariously, in becoming more selfish and narrow.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to say "I'm in a hurry", or "I'm busy". It's that simple. And the goals that we were busy for? A bunch of crap.

The hearts of the people around me grew harder, and mine did, too. Now the hearts around me are softening, and so is mine.

Posted by: Jim on 8 Jan 08

I recently came across a referance on 'inhabitat' to academia after the vietnam war loss, who felt completely suffocated from then on, from commenting on anything that could be remotely percieved as 'from the left'. Of course the defining of such a parameter was at that time left up to the right. They now felt finally released to espouse and practice what they had for 25 years kept only an unfulfilled aspiration.

The academia in question were those of the architechture professions in America and indeed throughout the 'western' world, but the 'self restrictions' could just as easily have extended to all levels of academia and professions. The 'self restrictions' (loss of tenure, loss of jobs, loss of clients, loss of professional respect) deeply affected the teaching of and application of sustainable design principles in architecture.

Essentially, the swing to the right was not voluntary as is suggested by Jim of Jan 8th, but was a coersive reactionism of the rightwing body politic of the western world to a percieved left wing threat that was real or otherwise, to 'their way of life'. Unfortunately for Carter and the rest of us, enviromentalism, which will eventually be seen as anything but a partisan issue, was "handcuffed" to the left by a right wing perception of its inherent threat to selfish rightwing 'interests'. It originates from the left wing camp because it is inherently an unselfish view of co-existance on planet Earth. But it is neither left or right wing. It is survival.
As for Carter's re-election, well if his aunty had balls she'd be his uncle.

Posted by: simon seasons on 23 Jan 08



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