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Jimmy Carter's Climate Crusade: Ahead of His Time
I was sad to read that former President Jimmy Carter has "decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention." Yesterday's announcement by the Carter Center about the 98-year-old 39th president followed a recent series of short hospital stays.
Good presidents are hard to find.
I find it hard to understand that the country that elected Donald Trump not too long ago was the one that elected Jimmy Carter in 1976. So let me give you three quotes from President Carter, and just try to imagine for a moment that Trump would have spoken any of these inspiring words.
"Failure is a reality; we all fail at times, and it's painful when we do. But it's better to fail while striving for something wonderful, challenging, adventurous, and uncertain than to say, 'I don't want to try because I may not succeed completely.'"
"Unless both sides win, no agreement can be permanent."
"The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices."
Reading these words, you may wonder if it is indeed the same country that democratically elected these two men as its president.
My first president
In the 1970s, America was far away. It was the age before the internet and, at least on our side of the Atlantic, before color television on our single television channel. But the United States was a global superpower that dominated world affairs as well as our music and movie culture. The country was impressive from a small country perspective in a divided Europe; it was during the Cold War and before we united our strength in the European Union. And we were grateful that the Americans had played a pivotal role in liberating us from Nazi Tyranny only three decades earlier.
For a boy of eleven, America was a country where everything was better. A country I looked up to and dreamed of visiting someday. I had a small booklet with pictures of Disneyland that I had viewed so often that nearly half a century later, I still remember some of the highlights. I believe many in Europe still looked at the U.S. that way in those days. Everything seemed bigger, faster, and more spectacular in America, from the towering skyscrapers of New York City to the sleek muscle cars that raced down Highway 1 along the coastline of California.
The American Dream, with its promise of upward mobility and individual achievement, was a powerful draw for people worldwide, and we learned about it at school. However, it was only many years later that I realized the myth and discovered that the requirements for upward mobility are found in Europe. So while the American dream remained a dream for most Americans, we managed to build a society where their dream is often our reality. But that was decades later. In 1976, the election of an American President was a big deal for a young boy in a small European country.
But what do I remember correctly? I was only 11. Digging back into my memory, I have to dust off the multilayered appreciation I feel now for President Carter and all he has achieved. I should check the newspapers of those years, but if my memory serves me right, he wasn't appreciated much in those days. I mainly remember the jokes about peanuts and that he would need more experience to survive in Washington's political lion's den. I missed the negative economic news of those days but still remember the painful Iran hostage disaster.
In my early teens, I had just started to develop an interest in international news, and I believe I missed what he did for climate change and for equal rights for minorities and women. Nor do I recall his pushing for diversity among judicial nominees. But I still remember his crucial role in brokering the Middle East peace treaty between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David.
Integrity and honesty
Looking back, I wonder if we appreciated his integrity and honesty in those days. We took it too much for granted as if Watergate had just been a memorable incident where the laws and moral compasses were for once ignored. Talking about morals, let's briefly, and for the last time this evening, go back to Donald Trump; I guess the word integrity must have triggered something in me to write about him again. What did he do in his late twenties in the 1970s? Trump appeared for the first time on the front page of the New York Times because the U.S. Department of Justice sued Trump for racial discrimination.
But the reputations of presidents and all historical figures move up and down through history like graphs of stock prices. So, for example, Napoleon's standing is seen much more positively today as the dictator was viewed in 1815. And although his reputation is high, we mistakenly believe he was very short compared to other men of his day (he was of average height). Likewise, President Carter's reputation graph seems to have been on a post-presidential rise for decades.
Despite the mixed legacy of his presidency, Carter's commitment to service and humanitarian work has continued to inspire people worldwide. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 and has worked tirelessly through the Carter Center to promote democracy, human rights, and conflict resolution. His efforts have helped to eradicate diseases such as Guinea worm and river blindness in developing countries.
And over the years, even his reputation from before his presidency changed, for instance, because of this story: "How Jimmy Carter Saved a Canadian Nuclear Reactor After a Meltdown."
Now that climate change has finally become a mainstream worry for most of us, it's high time to acknowledge that Carter was right to urge us to travel less, rely less on foreign oil, and prioritize renewable energy and conservation. He was genuinely committed to environmental protection and established the Department of Energy.
Carter also championed the development of renewable energy sources, including solar power, and initiated a program to incentivize homeowners to install solar panels on their homes. In addition, he increased the size of the national park system and protected over 100 million acres of land through the Alaska National Interest Lands Protection Act. It is the most significant expansion of protected areas in American history.
Soon after his presidency ended, the White House's solar panels were taken down by Ronald Reagan, who also made the environmental movement politically charged and portrayed it as a fringe cause.
Since then, the U.S. government has neglected the environment for decades, significantly contributing to the catastrophic climate impacts we see worldwide today.
Let’s end with one more quote from Jimmy Carter. Speaking about a conflict between environmental quality and economic growth:
I want to make it clear, if there is ever [such] a conflict, I will go for beauty, clean air, water, and landscape.
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First photo: collection at the Library of Congress Leffler, Warren K., photographer or Trikosko, Marion S., photographer. Work for hire made for U.S. News and World Report., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Second photo: President Jimmy Carter at Quail Ridge Books-Raleigh NC. Mark Turner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons