Carter at the dedication of a new solar water heating system on the White House roof on June 20, 1979.

Carter at the dedication of a new solar water heating system on the White House roof on June 20, 1979. Harvey Georges / AP Photo


Unheralded Environmentalist: Jimmy Carter’s Green Legacy

With the former president now in hospice care, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird looks back on Jimmy Carter’s environmental record in the White House — from his sweeping protection of Alaska’s wild lands to his efforts to push the nation toward renewable energy.

The angry Alaskans gathered in Fairbanks to burn the president’s effigy. It was early December 1978 and President Jimmy Carter was that unpopular in Alaska. A few days earlier Carter had issued an unusual executive order, designating 56 million acres of Alaskan wilderness as a national monument. He did so unilaterally, using a little known 1906 Antiquities Act that ostensibly gave the president the executive power to designate buildings or small plots of historical sites on federal land as national monuments. No previous president had ever used the obscure act to create a vast wilderness area. But Congress was refusing to pass the necessary legislation, so Carter decided to act alone.

The Alaskan political establishment was flabbergasted. Despite the unpopularity of the unusual sequestration order, Carter announced that it would stand until Congress agreed to pass its own legislation. For the next two years Carter stubbornly held his ground, explaining that he wasn’t opposed to oil and gas development, but that he would not accept any bill that jeopardized the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the calving grounds and migratory route for one of the world’s last great caribou herds.

Finally, Alaska’s senior politician, Republican Senator Ted Stevens agreed in late 1980 to break the impasse. At one point in their wrangling over what became known as the Alaska Lands Act, Senator Stevens argued that one small region should be excluded from the proposed wilderness refuge. “Well, let’s check that,” Carter said. The president then rolled out an oversized map on the floor of the Oval Office. Stevens was astonished to see the president on his hands and knees, inspecting the area in question. “No, I don’t think you are right,” Carter observed. “You see, this little watershed here doesn’t actually go into that one. It comes over here.” The senator had to concede the point, and on the car ride back to Capitol Hill he turned to his aide and remarked, “He knows more about Alaska than I do.”

The Alaska Lands Act signed by Carter in 1980 was the largest single expansion of protected lands in American history.

That was vintage Carter, the president who always paid attention to details. But it also illustrates Carter’s legacy as a president devoted to protecting the environment. Carter was still negotiating with Senator Stevens weeks after his defeat in the November 1980 election. But on December 2, 1980, this now lame-duck president signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, creating more than 157 million acres of wilderness area, national wildlife refuges, and national parks — tripling the size of the nation’s Wilderness Preservation System and doubling the size of the National Park System. It was, and still is, the largest single expansion of protected lands in American history.

More than four decades later, before he entered hospice care in his simple Plains, Georgia home in February, Carter signed an amicus brief, appealing to the courts and President Joe Biden, not to permit the building of a gravel road through one small portion of the designated wilderness area. It was his last act in the public arena. And it succeeded: On March 14, the Interior Department canceled a plan that would have allowed the road’s construction.

Carter was always annoyed when pundits proclaimed him a “model” ex-president, but a failed president. And he was right to be annoyed because his was actually a quite consequential presidency, and no more so than on questions of conservation and the environment.

Carter reviews maps of Alaska with Senator Ted Stevens.

Carter reviews maps of Alaska with Senator Ted Stevens. Anchorage Daily News / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Early in his presidency, in the spring of 1977, he famously vetoed a slew of water projects, mostly small dams and river diversion facilities, in dozens of congressional districts around the country. Federal funding of such projects was often a waste of taxpayer funds. And these boondoggles, always encouraged by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, often harmed the rivers’ natural habitat. Carter knew he was doing the right thing — even though it eroded his support in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Carter’s instincts for conservation had been evident earlier when, as governor of Georgia, he had opposed unbridled commercial development, favored tough regulations to protect the state’s coastal wetlands, and endorsed the creation of two major seashores and river parks.

But when Carter got to the White House, he shocked many observers by appointing James Gustave Speth, age 35, to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Speth was regarded by the Washington establishment as a radical on environmental issues. A Yale-trained lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, he had co-founded in 1970 the Natural Resources Defense Council, a tough advocacy group on environmental issues. Speth, who later served as dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, used his position in the administration to educate Carter about the dangers of acid rain, carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere, and the likely extinction of 100,000 species during the next quarter century.

Just before leaving office, Carter released a prophetic report, largely written by Speth, that predicted “widespread and pervasive changes in global climatic, economic, social and agricultural patterns” if humanity continued to rely on fossil fuels. The Global 2000 Report to the President became an early clarion call for scientists studying climate change.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Danielle Brigida / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

History will judge Carter as a president ahead of his time. He set a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by 2000. In an age of soaring energy prices and stagflation, he famously wore a cardigan on national television during a fireside chat in which he urged Americans to lower their thermostats and conserve energy. He put solar water heating panels on the roof of the White House, telling reporters, “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.” Ironically, while Carter put federal money into solar energy research, a few years later his successor Ronald Reagan ripped the solar panels off the White House roof — and a few are still displayed in museums.

Carter spent much of his time in office trying to deal with energy issues. He proposed a 283-page National Energy Act (NEA) that included a tax on oversized, gas-guzzling cars, tax credits for home insulation, and investments in solar and wind technologies. Carter insisted that his energy bill was the “moral equivalent of war.” In response, The Wall Street Journal labeled it with the sarcastic acronym MEOW. Republican Party chairman Bill Brock charged that the president was “driving people out of their family cars.” Michigan Democratic Congressman John Dingell told Carter aides that it was an “asinine bill.” The legislation nevertheless passed the House, but then encountered much more opposition in the Senate. Carter complained in a private White House diary, “The influence of the oil and gas industry is unbelievable, and it’s impossible to arouse the public to protect themselves.”

Carter’s “malaise speech” was a sermon about limits — an un-American idea for a people fed on the manna of manifest destiny.

The final bill, passed in October 1978, was a complicated compromise — but it did impose penalties on gas-guzzling cars, required higher efficiency standards for home appliances, and provided tax incentives to develop wind and solar technologies. But environmentalists would criticize it for also providing incentives to mine domestic coal and produce corn-based gasohol. Carter’s goal here was to lessen the country’s dependence on imported Arab oil — and in this he was marginally successful, leading to a decline in oil imports during his term in office. But in an unintended consequence, environmentalists would complain that a part of the bill required that any new power plants be fired with fuels other than oil or natural gas. In practice, that meant coal received a major boost.

In retrospect, the most consequential part of the energy bill was the phased decontrol of natural gas prices. This deregulation eventually stimulated exploration for natural gas in the United States and created the market conditions decades later for the innovative fracking technology that would make the country a major supplier of liquefied natural gas.

Politically speaking, Carter’s energy policies were criticized by both sides. He was faulted by liberals for enacting too much deregulation, while conservatives perceived him as an enemy of the oil and gas industry.

Carter fly fishing near Moose, Wyoming in August 1978.

Carter fly fishing near Moose, Wyoming in August 1978. Bettmann via Getty Images

If environmentalists should remember one thing about the Carter presidency it should be his so-called “malaise speech” in July 1979. It was an extraordinary sermon about America’s limits — a most un-American idea for a people constantly fed on the manna of manifest destiny. “We’ve always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own,” he said. “Our people are losing that faith … In a nation that was once proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” Taking a page straight from Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (which Carter had recently read), Carter observed, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

This was the born-again Southern Baptist in Jimmy Carter speaking, the Southern populist, warning his people about the need to be aware of our environment’s fragility and limitations. It was not a message most Americans wanted to hear. But it remains a key part of his presidential legacy.