Teddy Roosevelt often gets the credit for being America’s “most environmental” president. Award-winning author Jonathan Alter makes a fresh and convincing case that Jimmy Carter deserves that honor for being the first world leader to recognize climate change, the first to call for an international pact to stop it (foreshadowing the Paris Accord), the first to establish fuel economy standards, as well as for launching groundbreaking initiatives to clean up toxic waste sites, create America’s largest national park, and champion laws to fight air and water pollution.
In his fascinating new biography, His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life, Alter reports on the 39th president’s unsung environmental, social, and political legacy that continues to benefit all Americans.
Jimmy Carter and Me
The very first day I came to Washington D.C. was for a job interview at a non-profit called Environmental Action (EA). It was July 1, 1977. EA had been lobbying the Carter Administration to cancel the B-1 Bomber. They were too busy to interview me at the appointed time, so they suggested I go over to the White House and sit in on the President’s press conference about the B-1. I was in the room when the President, a former nuclear engineer in the U.S. Navy, announced he would discontinue the bomber’s funding, an action that was met with widespread rejoicing among the environmentalists whose group I would soon join.
Later that year, I organized a “Cans to Carter” campaign to try to persuade the president to support national deposit legislation to reduce solid waste. Carter signed landmark legislation creating the Superfund, which compels polluters to pay to cleanup hazardous waste dumps. Carter was “horrified by the environmental disaster at Love Canal, New York, where a chemical plant had spent decades…contaminating the ground and leading residents to suffer abnormally high incidences of miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer,” explains Alter. Superfund has led to the cleanup of hundreds of contaminated sites since Love Canal and “unquestionably prevented thousands or even millions of serious health problems.”
Carter’s Environmental Legacy
As president, Carter had been responsible for thirty-nine new National Park Service designations. He finished work he had begun as governor of Georgia by federally protecting Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River. He designated the Santa Monica Mountains in Los Angeles a national recreation area, which today has become one of the largest urban national parks in the world. Teddy Roosevelt had protected Muir Woods near San Francisco and LBJ created nearby Redwood National Park; Carter expanded the park and protection of both.
Almost 20 years later, as a board member of the Alaska Wilderness League (AWL), I met Carter at a reception for AWL at the Carter Center in Atlanta. In one of his signature accomplishments, “Jimmy” had signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act into law, protecting 104 million acres, a landmass the size of California. Two decades on, scores of other activists, including myself, had been working to prevent oil drilling from destroying the coastal plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a cause to which Carter was committed. AWL presented the man with an award; in typical Carter fashion, the former president accepted the kudos but didn’t bask in them. Instead, he adjourned the festivities with the words, “Let’s get to work.” We did.
“With one stroke of the pen, he doubled the size of the national park system, tripled wilderness areas, and preserved twenty-five free-flowing rivers,” Alter sums up. “He also moved unilaterally to protect fifty-eight million acres as national monuments by executive order under the 1906 Antiquities Act,” a canny ploy that later paved the way for President Bill Clinton to create the almost 2-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah.
Carter and Climate Change
Early in his presidency, Carter issued a report prepared by his Council on Environmental Quality that urged “immediate action” regarding the large-scale burning of oil, coal and other fossil fuels linked to “widespread and pervasive changes in global climatic, economic, social, and agricultural patterns.” Alter opines that, had Carter not lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, our climate future might have turned out very differently.
Writing in Time about Carter and climate change, Alter reports that Joe Biden was the first senator to endorse Carter for president in 1976 and reflects that, 44 years later, “Biden is running on similar themes and has introduced an ambitious program to combat climate change and create millions of green jobs.”
“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.”
I highly recommend this fascinating book!