Jimmy Carter — the peak oil president

His 1977 speech on the energy crisis is all too timely during a week of campaign obsession over tire gauges and offshore drilling.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Energy, Globalization, How the World Works, Jimmy Carter, Peak Oil,

Brad DeLong excerpts Jimmy Carter’s 1977 speech on the energy crisis in his blog today.

The timing is extraordinarily appropriate, and not just because energy is the campaign issue of the week. The wave of Republican mockery currently assaulting Barack Obama’s recommendation that Americans properly inflate their tires flows squarely within the tradition of scorn and derision that conservatives have heaped on Carter for decades — in part because of his call for conservation and sacrifice in 1977.

But the speech holds up pretty darn well today, even as right-wing flailing increasingly manifests itself, to borrow a slam made by Obama against his critics on Tuesday, as risibly “ignorant.” I particularly liked the following passage, if only because of its prescience.

But we do have a choice about how we will spend the next few years. Each American uses the energy equivalent of 60 barrels of oil per person each year. Ours is the most wasteful nation on earth. We waste more energy than we import. With about the same standard of living, we use twice as much energy per person as do other countries like Germany, Japan and Sweden.

One choice is to continue doing what we have been doing before. We can drift along for a few more years.

Our consumption of oil would keep going up every year. Our cars would continue to be too large and inefficient. Three-quarters of them would continue to carry only one person — the driver — while our public transportation system continues to decline.

Carter’s speech isn’t 100 percent flawless. There is, for example, Carter’s peak oil prediction:

Unless profound changes are made to lower oil consumption, we now believe that early in the 1980s the world will be demanding more oil that it can produce … Each new inventory of world oil reserves has been more disturbing than the last. World oil production can probably keep going up for another six or eight years. But some time in the 1980s it can’t go up much more. Demand will overtake production. We have no choice about that.

Carter’s prediction was badly wrong. The oil shocks of the 1970s spurred huge development of oil fields outside of OPEC’s control, broke OPEC’s pricing power, and ushered in an era of newly cheap gas that rendered Carter’s entire speech meaningless to a generation. And so our cars got even bigger!

But the real missing link in Carter’s speech is a point that keeps getting left out of the current debate over offshore drilling — the deadly intersection of fossil fuel exploitation and climate change. Carter made some references to the importance of environmental protection in his speech, but also called for greatly accelerated exploitation of coal. The specter of an overheating planet wasn’t on his radar.

Theoretically, the challenge of climate change is one that John McCain accepts. But he seems to have forgotten about the problem as he marches across the country declaring “Drill here and drill now.” Mr. Straight Talk supposedly supports a cap-and-trade system that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the only way such a system would work would be by making the burning of fossil fuels more expensive. Which, of course, makes the already illusory prospect that increased offshore drilling would have any meaningful effect on gas prices even more evanescent.

The Rush Limbaugh wing of the Republican Party, happily smacking their lips as they’ve chowed down on Jimmy Carter’s legacy for almost three decades, would have us believe that the threats of climate change and peak oil do not exist. To which point, again, one can think of no better response than Barack Obama’s.

“I don’t understand it … It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.”

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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