THE BLOG
11/17/2013 11:29 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

One Path Led to Green Energy, the Other to Oil Wars -- Guess Which One We Chose

There's a crossroads moment in our recent history that comes back to me whenever I think of our warming planet. (2013 is shaping up to be the seventh warmest year since records began to be kept in 1850. The 10 warmest years have all occured since 1998.) In the six months from July 1979 to January 1980, as Jimmy Carter's one-term presidency was winding down, he urged two approaches to global energy on Americans. One was dismissed out of hand, the other taken up with alacrity -- and our world is incommensurately the worse for it. Here's a description I wrote back in May that is worth quoting again:

On July 15, 1979, at a time when gas lines, sometimes blocks long, were a disturbing fixture of American life, President Jimmy Carter spoke directly to the American people on television for 32 minutes, calling for a concerted effort to end the country's oil dependence on the Middle East. 'To give us energy security,' he announced, 'I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the sun...'

It's true that, with the science of climate change then in its infancy, Carter wouldn't have known about the possibility of an overheating world, and his vision of 'alternative energy' wasn't exactly a fossil-fuel-free one. Even then -- shades of today or possibly tomorrow -- he was talking about having 'more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias.' Still, it was a remarkably forward-looking speech.

Had we invested massively in alternative energy R&D back then, who knows where we might be today? Instead, the media dubbed it the 'malaise speech,' though the president never actually used that word, speaking instead of an American 'crisis of confidence.' While the initial public reaction seemed positive, it didn't last long. In the end, the president's energy proposals were essentially laughed out of the room and ignored for decades.

Carter would, however, make his mark on U.S. energy policy, just not quite in the way he had imagined. Six months later, on January 23, 1980, in his last State of the Union Address, he would proclaim what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine: 'Let our position be absolutely clear,' he said. 'An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.'

No one would laugh him out of the room for that. Instead, the Pentagon would fatefully begin organizing itself to protect U.S. (and oil) interests in the Persian Gulf on a new scale and America's oil wars would follow soon enough. Not long after that address, it would start building up a Rapid Deployment Force in the Gulf that would in the end become U.S. Central Command. More than three decades later, ironies abound: thanks in part to those oil wars, whole swaths of the energy-rich Middle East are in crisis, if not chaos, while the big energy companies have put time and money into a staggeringly fossil-fuel version of Carter's 'alternative' North America. They've focused on shale oil, and on shale gas as well, and with new production methods, they are reputedly on the brink of turning the United States into a 'new Saudi Arabia.'

Could there have been a sadder choice in recent history? If, in 1979, the U.S. had invested in a big way in solar, wind, tidal power, and who knows what else, imagine where we might be today. Imagine a world not facing a future in which storms like Super-Typhoon Haiyan, which recently leveled part of the Philippines, its winds devastating, its storm surge killing staggering numbers, threaten to become the norm for our children and grandchildren.

So oil wars, yes! -- which meant transforming the Greater Middle East into a region of chaos, instability, and death. An oil-ravaged planet, yes indeed! -- which meant potentially transforming a future version of Earth into a planet of chaos, instability, and death! A green energy revolution, not on your life! -- not while the giant energy corporations have so much invested in underground reserves of fossil fuels and such gigantic profits to make, not while so many governments are deeply intertwined with those energy giants or are themselves essentially giant energy companies. No wonder energy expert Michael Klare suggests in his latest piece, "Surviving Climate Change," that it falls into our hands to ensure that a green energy revolution arrives ahead of a human-created, fossil-fueled apocalypse.