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Jimmy Carter Was Right

Today, the Obama administration turned away youth climate activists who wanted to return solar panels to the White House. Climate leader Bill McKibben and three students from Maine’s Unity College had driven to Washington D.C. with one of the solar panels that had been installed on the White House by President Jimmy Carter. After President Ronald Reagan took them down when he assumed office in 1980, the panel ended up in Maine, where it has produced power from the sun for thirty more years. Given the chance to “at least make symbolic amends” for not enacting comprehensive climate legislation, Obama officials instead gave the students a pamphlet written in 2009 about the federal government’s greening initiatives and said “the White House roof is not available”:

They explained that there were a variety of reasons that the White House roof is not available for a gesture with very little energy-saving potential and that the Obama administration was doing more to promote renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any previous government. The word “stunt” may have come up.

The meeting, held in the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, was hosted by Michelle Moore, the Federal Environmental Executive, Amelia Salzman, Associate Director for Policy Outreach at the Council on Environmental Quality, and Greg Nelson, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

It’s absolutely true, as those officials pointed out, that President Obama has launched an ambitious green energy agenda, “including more than $80 billion in the generation of renewable energy sources, expanding manufacturing capacity for clean energy technology, advancing vehicle and fuel technologies, and building a bigger, better, smarter electric grid, all while creating new, sustainable jobs.”

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However, this agenda is not, as they claimed, an “unprecedented commitment to renewable energy.” In fact, it’s a reprise of President Carter’s grand 1979 vision of “a long-range strategy to move beyond fossil fuel,” including “the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.”

This is an administration that fully understands the power of “gestures,” like the White House organic garden and farmer’s market. Their discomfort overwhelms the logistical security challenges of putting people to work installing panels on the White House roof. Surprisingly, they did not trumpet the existing solar power installations on the White House complex quietly added by Clinton holdovers during the Bush administration.

Conservatives have transformed the tax-raising, deficit-ballooning, terrorist-supporting Ronald Reagan into a right-wing demigod, and Jimmy Carter into the pariah of presidents, a feckless one-termer responsible for a sweater-wearing malaise. Hopefully Americans will one day be wise enough to realize that Carter was the patriotic leader with a literally sunny vision of American ingenuity and independence, destroyed by the insane fealty to Saudi Arabian oil and strip-mining of our economy by Reagan’s voodoo economics.

When it comes to past progressive leaders, President Obama has much more in common with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in terms of the political moment and political skill. But Obama needs to use his unique talents to restore Carter’s interrupted energy legacy of technological supremacy, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. Thirty years of fossil folly have burned away precious time and treasure, but it’s still not too late.

The Carter solar panel will remain in Washington D.C. for the 350.org Global Work Party on October 10 (10/10/10).