The United States already is a world superpower in terms of military might, but our nation would truly be a world leader if it acted more responsibly in combating climate change, former President Jimmy Carter said Tuesday.
Carter, 89, a Democrat who served as president from January 1977 to January 1981, participated in a Q&A session during an American Renewable Energy Day luncheon in Aspen. He told the sold-out crowd inside the Hotel Jerome ballroom that America is now “the lagger” in dealing with global warming, as other nations — including China, Japan, North Korea, Canada and countries across Europe — are stepping up their efforts.
“I think that we’re going to begin to realize that being a major superpower on Earth is not just who dominates economics and military,” he said. “I would say that one of the characteristics of a superpower is to take leadership on issues that could afflict the rest of the world, and I say climate change is one of those symbolic but very tangibly important issues that would put the United States in the role of a true superpower.”
Carter’s administration gave particular focus to the environment, conservation and renewable energy. In 1979, amid the Arab oil embargo, he ordered the installation of 32 solar panels atop the White House as an example to other Americans to adopt conservation measures. The panels were removed a few years later during Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Author and historian Douglas Brinkley, in introducing Carter during Tuesday’s luncheon, pointed out the attention he gave to the environment and conservation. In December 1980, Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, providing 43.6 million acres of new national parklands in Alaska, adding 53.7 million acres to the National Wildlife Refuge System and creating other protected areas.
Carter said he didn’t become fully aware of the human affect on climate change until 1979, when some scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts spoke with his science adviser.
“I think now the opportunity is even greater for us to take action,” he said. “But we had very good support then from the Republican side of the Congress. I had just as much support from the Republicans as I did Democrats for the energy policies that were put into effect.”
In fact, as Brinkley and discussion moderator and American Renewable Energy Institute President Sally Ranney noted, Carter created the U.S. Department of Energy in 1977. Through the new department, more federal money was allocated toward research and development of energy efficiencies and environmental policies.
Carter said it’s more important now than ever for the United States to emphasize renewable-energy systems and energy efficiencies. He singled out other countries for devotion to such efforts, including Canada, where 64 percent of its energy is derived from renewable supplies largely due to hydroelectric power. He said North Korea is at 62 percent, “because they don’t have any money to buy fuel oil and because the United States has had an embargo” on the country since 1950.
“The United States is right at the bottom,” Carter said. “We still only have about 10 percent of our energy from renewables. So we have a tremendous opportunity to do what other countries have done that we haven’t tapped yet. We are now beginning to do it, to some degree.”
Fuel efficiency in automobiles and renewable-energy systems have proven their feasibility in other countries, he said. So why isn’t the United States embracing the same philosophies?
“I would say the biggest handicap we have right now are some nutcases in our country that don’t believe in global warming,” he said, drawing applause and laughter. “I think they are going to change their position because of pressure from individuals, because the evidence of the ravages of global warming are already there.”
Carter recalled that during a recent trip to Alaska, the top news story was that the state no longer would have polar bears in 25 years.
And in Norfolk, Virginia — where Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were married 68 years ago — seawater is coming into the city streets through storm drains, he said.
“I would guess that even the most right-wing Republican senator and Congress member within the next five or six years are going to have proven to them in the United States and other places that they’ve got to change their position,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen in this country is going to convince the most recalcitrant congressman that we’ve got to change, too.”
President Obama is doing what he can to assist and promote environmental legislation, but he can’t do it alone, Carter said. Unlike some other countries around the world where mandates have been issued from the top, the U.S. president needs congressional approval to initiate major change, he noted.
Also in Aspen, Carter spoke at length about women’s issues. In March, the 28th book he has authored, “A Call to Action: Women, Religion, Violence and Power,” was released. He called it “the most important book I’ve ever written.”
The former president spoke of how in some countries, mainly in Africa, the external genitals of young females are mutilated for various reasons, such as discouraging reproduction or to preserve their purity. The book speaks of how women are deprived of opportunity in wealthy nations and owned by men in others, often forced into slavery, servitude and child marriage.
It happens in the United States. Carter, a former governor of Georgia, said that in Atlanta, between 200 and 300 girls are imported from other countries every month as part of the human-trafficking trade.
“One of the worst places in America for sexual abuse is (a source) of our greatest pride, and that’s our university systems,” he said. He cited a “60 Minutes” report in which it was said that 41 percent of all universities in America have not reported a sexual-abuse case in the past five years.
“One out of five girls who go through an American university is sexually abused while she’s in school,” he said. “The problem is, nobody wants to know about it or admit it,” because college presidents and deans are covering up the issue.
Following that comment, Carter received a standing ovation from the Aspen crowd.