02/09/2009 10:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Last Green Stimulus

As Congress dickers over a landmark green stimulus bill, with vital energy, environmental and climate provisions placed on the chopping block, it's worth recalling the last time an American president tried to spend big to go green - and had the country poised to save the planet before the plug was pulled.

It began thirty years ago, with the only presidential press conference ever held on the White House roof. That's where President Jimmy Carter showed off a newly installed solar energy system for the presidential mansion, a potent bit of symbolism to usher in unprecedented federal support for renewable energy research, spending, and tax breaks. A new era in energy independence was supposed to have begun that day in 1979, with an ambitious yet reachable goal set for the year 2000: to have Americans obtain 20 to 28 percent of their energy from new solar, wind, and geothermal industries in place of imported, polluting oil.

With the country rocked by multiple oil crises, Carter argued - presciently, as it turned out, given the petro-dollar funding of the 9/11 terrorists - that independence from foreign oil was essential for both national security and prosperity. And he argued that energy security could be served best by developing clean technologies that would also create jobs and heal the environment.

Here's the part of this history ignored by critics of the green "pork" in Obama's new stimulus bill: Carter's "Green Stimulus 1.0" worked.

By the time he left office in 1981, America led the world in renewable energy. We had a young, thriving clean energy industry then that was creating jobs and wealth that we can only dream about now. Government had not gotten "in the way" of this progress - it had made it possible, with exactly the sort of green stimulus spending Obama wants to revive today.

But Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, told the county that government was the problem, not the solution, and that environmental programs and regulation could never be anything other than left-wing impediments to prosperity and growth. So he tore down the White House solar panels and ended support for the budding solar and wind power industries that had been coming on just when we needed them most. And with that, America surrendered its world leadership in this vital sector, which could have been providing jobs and rolling back climate change long before the crises of today. We are no closer now to Carter's ambitious goal than we were thirty years ago, and we are all the poorer for it - and all the weaker. History may well mark this as Reagan's most momentous act.

Now comes Obama's "Green Stimulus 2.0" - bigger, bolder, and at a time of even greater economic crisis than Carter faced. Once again, an American president wants to spend big on renewables, on clean cars, and on energy efficiency in order to create jobs, spark new and vibrant industries, and help the environment. And once again, as he told the country at his first presidential conference Monday night, the deniers, anti-environmentalists, and the government haters clinging to shopworn ideology want to shut it down.

But they, like Reagan before them, are wrong - wrong on the history, and wrong on the future. And this time, we truly cannot afford to let history repeat itself.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Edward Humes' latest book, Eco Barons:The Dreamers, Schemers & Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet, will be published in March by Harper Collins.