We’re Having a Jimmy Carter Moment With Energy Conservation Back on the Menu

It's 'That '70s Show' as energy conservation is back.

Jimmy Carter during fireplace chat
Jimmy Carter during a fireplace chat.

Dirck Halstead / Getty Image

In 1974, in response to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil embargo after the Yom Kippur War, then-President Richard Nixon signed a law reducing the speed limit to 55 mph to reduce demand for imported oil. In 1977, shortly after taking office, President Jimmy Carter put on a yellow cardigan sweater and called for a spirit of sacrifice to deal with the energy crisis.

"There is no way we can solve it quickly," said Carter. "But if we all cooperate and make modest sacrifices, if we learn to live thriftily and remember the importance of helping our neighbors, then we can find ways to adjust, and to make our society more efficient and our own lives more enjoyable and productive."

One sacrifice he asked for was for people to turn down the thermostat for heating to 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime, 55 degrees at night, suggesting it would cut the shortage of natural gas in half. Carter stated: "There is no way that I, or anyone else in the Government, can solve our energy problems if you are not willing to help. I know that we can meet this energy challenge if the burden is borne fairly among all our people—and if we realize that in order to solve our energy problems we need not sacrifice the quality of our lives."

Needless to say, neither Nixon nor Carter's conservation measures were very popular and were swept away by former President Ronald Reagan, who instead called for more drilling, more nuclear, and more coal. Then we got fracking and the Alberta oil sands and we had lots of energy to run our pickups and suburban McMansions.

Nixon and Carter were responding to an oil shock caused by a war in the Middle East, and today there is a fossil fuel shock caused by the war in Ukraine, and journalists are writing articles with titles like "Paging Jimmy Carter." In Bloomberg, they write, "Not since Jimmy Carter was U.S. president are governments around the world under so much pressure to ask their citizens to cut energy consumption for the greater good."

There are two ways of dealing with the issue of rising energy costs due to shortages in Europe, as we noted in our post, "Governments Should Subsidize E-Bikes, Not Gasoline Prices."

Author and Bloomberg energy columnist Javier Blas says much the same thing, writing: "The oil market is desperately in need of demand destruction. Governments should either be encouraging behavioral changes such as using more public transportation or allowing expensive fuel to force consumers to change." Instead, governments are subsidizing gas prices and creating demand for construction.

He continues: "Think about it: If oil becomes more affordable, consumption rises. The higher oil demand goes, the higher oil prices go, too, and the more money the Kremlin makes. Those extra petrodollars can go toward killing more Ukrainians."

10 point plan to cut oil use

International Energy Agency

Blas suggests that instead of subsidies to drivers, governments should follow the International Energy Agency's 10-point plan that we admired earlier. He says politicians should be encouraging conservation: "Unsexy policies — like tax breaks for house insulation, for example — can also bring longer-term energy and climate change benefits. Although calling for energy conservation has been politically toxic since Jimmy Carter did so during the 1979 oil shock, the message today might resonate given the focus on Ukraine and climate change."

Here at Treehugger, we have been peddling unsexy policies for years, as has most of the climate community. I have written numerous posts with titles like "How do you sell the idea of Passive House?" and "How do we get people to care about climate and energy?" because it seemed like nobody did.

reasons to conserve

Shelton Group

As Susanne Shelton found out in her surveys, people cared about saving money, and energy was cheap. The environment was way down the list. And the grandkids? Forget about them—who cares?

Cutting carbon emissions was always a hard sell as well because of what Dan Gardner, author of "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear," called "psychological distance." Writing in The Globe and Mail in 2018, Gardner notes:

"Climate change is distant in every dimension. The worst of it lies decades in the future, to be suffered in far-off lands by foreigners very different from us, and the worst scenarios are highly uncertain. It would be hard to design a threat more likely to induce highly abstract thoughts. And shrugs."

But there is nothing distant about gas at five bucks a gallon. There is nothing distant about people refusing potatoes in food banks because they can't afford the gas to boil them. There is nothing distant about a hot war happening in Ukraine and a cold war likely for years to come. It just got real.

Posters about saving gas

National Archives and Records Administration

Carter's wasn't the first government to ask citizens to save gas and it is not the last. According to Stephen Stapczynski in Bloomberg:

"Some politicians in Europe have  started to suggest that citizens will have to do their part to reduce energy consumption and cut gas imports from Russia, which make up about 40% of total imports for the bloc. 'If you don’t want to act on going one degree lower for climate change, do it against Putin,' Claude Turmes, Luxembourg’s energy minister, said recently at an online panel."

I am not even going to look at comments for a week after writing this, but Carter was right: Turn down the thermostat (check out the Netherlands' Warm Sweater Day) and walk instead of driving. In the short term, reduce demand for oil and gas here in North America and the price goes down and there is more for everyone else. Then let's insulate and electrify and get off fossil fuel, the common solution to both our climate and our energy problems.

View Article Sources
  1. Shabecoff, Philip, "Reagan and Environment: To Many, a Stalemate." New York Times, 2 Jan. 1989