Editor’s Note: Meg Jacobs teaches history at Princeton University. She is the author of “Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
“You can be loyal to American labor or loyal to environmental lunatics. You can’t be loyal to both,” former President Donald Trump said at a rally last week in Macomb County, Michigan.
Trying to win the support of blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt as he seeks the 2024 GOP nomination, Trump repeatedly attacked President Joe Biden’s climate policies and called the massive investment in electric vehicles a “hit job in Michigan and on Detroit.”
Trump’s visit came a day after Biden appeared on the picket line in Michigan in support of striking autoworkers, who are demanding higher pay amid fears that electric vehicles will destroy their livelihoods. Those EVs can require fewer workers to manufacture than gas-powered ones, especially when most of the batteries are currently produced in China.
Unlike Trump, who thinks that playing up this tension between pocketbook concerns and environmentalism wins him votes, Biden is offering a future where green energy can preserve jobs and the environment at the same time. It remains to be seen which perspective voters, especially those walking the picket lines, will choose.
If we want to think about how we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels without causing economic pain, we must appreciate that the tension between these goals runs deep. Here history provides a cautionary tale about how hard it will be for Biden to go green without the loss of jobs or lifestyles that Americans are accustomed to.
How did we get here?
The conflict between economic and environmental concerns dates back most pointedly to the energy shocks of the 1970s, when Americans, who started the decade with a historic commitment to environmental policy, abandoned many of those ideals when the first oil shock hit.
October 17th marks the 50th anniversary of the Arab oil embargo. Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) boycotted sales to the United States in retaliation for American support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War and then cut production, officially launching the United States into an energy crisis. Within three months, the price of a barrel of oil had quadrupled.
Today’s inflation is kids’ play compared with that of the 1970s. Americans had been paying a few cents per gallon for gas, and prices increased so quickly that gas stations struggled to display the price when it broke through the dollar barrier.
It was, as one White House adviser put it, “an energy Pearl Harbor.”
The rest of the decade would be defined by this oil shock and another that came in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution.
But rather than rousing Americans from their reliance on gasoline, the public insisted politicians do whatever they could to preserve their way of life.
The ‘70s initially seemed be the decade of environmentalism. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the sweeping National Environmental Policy Act into law after a disastrous oil spill off Santa Barbara, California. He went on to support the Clean Air Act of 1970, which imposed astounding limitations on corporate America’s ability to pollute. Regardless of his personal views, this skillful politician knew being green would play well, especially with a younger generation.
But Americans still loved their cars. And when that suburban way of life — made possible in part by a seemingly limitless supply of cheap gas — was threatened, much of that environmental mindset went on hold.
As soon as the oil shock struck, there was a reversion to coal and to drilling for oil. Sen. Henry Jackson, a leading environmentalist, became the Alaska pipeline’s main supporter. Instead of letting gas prices go up, and thereby inducing cutbacks, there was enormous pressure on politicians to keep them down, resulting in a price control policy that even the conservative Nixon felt compelled to support, though it was ultimately ineffective.
There was no better symbol of the failures of environmentalism to take hold, in the face of rising prices, than the long gas lines that snaked across the country. Americans waited for hours, sometimes running out of gas, sometimes getting into fistfights, just to tank up at sky-high prices.
It was that much more of a blow when the second oil shock struck under President Jimmy Carter’s watch, as he had told Americans he would solve the energy crisis. The long lines in the summer of 1979 made it clear he had failed.
True, Carter famously installed solar panels on the White House’s roof and promised that the country would receive 20% of its energy from the sun and other renewable resources by 2000. But there was not much political will to make this happen.
Even as he urged Americans to change their consumer habits and shamed them for their indulgence, Carter, motivated by national security concerns, promoted a failed synthetic coal program and called America the Saudi Arabia of coal.
Still, that was not enough to save Carter, who went down in defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election, with Democrats in Michigan’s Macomb County, and elsewhere, switching their partisan allegiance.
A reason for optimism
So where are we today? In 2023, environmentalism, even as it is subject to the rampant polarization of our time, is seemingly more popular than ever as we are living through wildfires, floods and record heat, all with devastating consequences. We see the consequences of climate change all around us.
And yet Americans still do not want to pay for a green future. In a recent poll from the AP-NORC Center and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, only 38% of Americans said they would be willing to pay $1 a month in a carbon tax to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
Such reluctance is especially true as inflation has gone up and made Americans that much more price-conscious — and many workers fear an energy transition that will threaten jobs in coal and the automobile industry.
It is that tension that Trump seeks to exploit, stoking fears that Biden’s policies will lead to the death of American car production.
And yet there is reason to embrace some optimism. The Inflation Reduction Act not only promises to be a once-in-a-generation piece of climate legislation, but it also offers an essential reframing that is necessary for sustained progress.
Early reports suggest that this infusion of government funds is fundamentally changing the direction of American energy use and doing so in a new, more palatable way. Instead of strapping Americans with higher prices and inconvenience, the act offers the opposite: lower prices and greater convenience. And that is a real game changer.
When Biden, in an unprecedented act, joined the United Auto Workers picket line the day before Trump’s rally, he was promising a win-win scenario. Car companies could afford to pay higher wages and protect jobs, even as they adopt an EV fleet.
The lesson of the 1970s is that the only way for real, permanent change to occur is to offer a better life. In their most ambitious version, Biden’s policies do that: Through incentives and credits, a new network of electrical vehicles will make it ultimately easier and more affordable to drive a car, and he has also offered billions for stimulating EV battery manufacturing in the United States.
If Biden can deliver on the promise of his policies, it would not only redound to his political benefit but also put Americans on a greener path.