On July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter addressed a nation engulfed by instability. Years of inflation and job losses had weakened the domestic economy. The Cold War was still raging and new tensions were appearing in the Middle East. And at the center of it all was an oil crisis ignited by upheaval in Iran, resulting in empty gas pumps around America.
President Carter’s remarks—later dubbed his “malaise speech”—were unusually frank with the American people, requesting collective sacrifice to achieve a common goal. He outlined a six-point plan to shield us from global risks by boosting domestic energy production and reducing imported oil. At a genuine inflection point in U.S. economic and diplomatic history, the president was willing to propose short-term pain for long-term gain.
Over four decades later, history has come full circle with President Joe Biden’s current predicament. A first-term Democratic president is grappling with high inflation at home and a threat from revanchist states abroad. Meanwhile, drivers are again facing sky-high prices at the pump—but this time they’re paired with a far more existential threat to the climate.
Now, with President Biden announcing an embargo on Russian energy products, we’re truly living in a spiritual sequel to 1979. But instead of ignoring the warning signs around us, this time around, America can use a crisis to create an opportunity. By bringing energy back to the top of the national agenda, the current administration and Congress have a chance to address the unheeded recommendations President Carter made decades ago: America must shift into an era of clean, abundant energy and ecological conservation.
The 1979 oil crisis was a global news story that jumped off the page into everyday life. Data from the Commerce Department confirms that American households have never spent a greater share of their income on gasoline and other energy products than they did from the beginning of 1979 to the end of 1981. Even after prices started to come down, it took another three years for relative spending to get back to where it was before the crisis began. Americans felt the oil crisis.
In tackling the nation’s energy issues head-on, President Carter’s speech was remarkably prescient. Decades of investment in research, extraction, and power plants helped the U.S. boost domestic energy production by 42% between 1980 and 2020. Oil imports slowed, and even when they bounced back, domestic exports helped offset them. As a result, in 2019, America became a net energy producer for the first time since 1957.
President Carter also made bold appeals that were ignored. He asked Americans to drive alone less and take transit or carpool more. We did neither; carpooling rates fell especially fast after 1980. He asked households to turn down their thermostats whenever they could, yet residential energy use went up. He even stressed the need to invest in renewable energy. But most of all, the U.S. is simply less energy independent than President Carter aspired for.
Fast forward to today, and the costs of our ignorance are all around us. Climate change is no longer a conversation limited to Earth Day like it was in 1979. The average costs of extreme weather events surged from $18 billion per year in the 1980s to $81 billion per year in the 2010s. Transportation is now the country’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions, while neighborhoods over-designed for automobiles contribute to dangerous conditions like urban heat islands.
What President Carter understood then is what we must remember now. Affordable energy helps the entire economy flourish. Energy independence protects us from global foes. Energy innovation grows new industries. The U.S. must continue to steer toward those long-term goals—but we must do so with an eye toward new climate realities.
Now is the time for federal policymakers to broker the kind of major energy and climate deal the country needs. Suddenly, there is a larger base of congressional support for renewable energy; just read Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) own words. Let’s put that growing support to use and fill the climate gaps left by the federal infrastructure bill.
That starts with energy generation. Whether through tax credits or a version of the Clean Electricity Performance Program, federal policy should directly incentivize the shift to renewables. We must complement clean power with cutting-edge manufacturing, investments in the clean economy workforce, and making energy efficient products like heat pumps more affordable. If building political support requires some degree of fossil fuel investment to help in the short term—as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) recently stated—then that’s a compromise worth taking.
To those who would eschew such compromise in favor of a perfect clean energy deal, the Carter administration offers one final lesson. Less than four months after the “malaise speech”—which, at the time, garnered political support and gave the president an 11-point polling bump—the Iranian hostage crisis upended political discourse in Washington. Just like that, the conversation moved on, taking with it the window for full-scale energy reform. The opportunity took decades to appear again.
No one can predict where the Ukrainian situation will go or how global energy markets will respond. But President Biden and leaders in Washington should use this crisis as a catalyst for the kind of long-term energy and conservation policies America needs, before history repeats itself again.