Jimmy Carter's Environmental Accomplishments

Instructor: Judith Schultz

Judy has been teaching college History for 17 years and holds both a Master's and a PhD in History. She grew up in suburban Chicago & now lives in Tucson AZ

Jimmy Carter enacted legislation and created programs that helped to improve the environment, reduce pollution and to protect Americans from contaminated land or water. In this lesson, you will learn about Carter's eco-friendly presidency.

Early Life

James Earl Carter, Jr. was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia to a deeply religious and politically liberal family. His family had been farmers in Georgia for many generations and his father was able to be financially successful with the family peanut farm even during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It was also in these early years that Jimmy Carter witnessed discrimination and segregation of African Americans. The Carter family and Jimmy, in particular, did not approve of segregation.


Jimmy excelled in school and was the first in his family to graduate high school and go on to college. He joined the Navy ROTC program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His ROTC experience along with high grades enabled him to enter the United States Naval Academy where he majored in Engineering. After graduation, he married and began his Navy career serving as a nuclear engineer.

It was during his time in the Navy that Carter had his first experience with a near environmental disaster when an atomic reactor began to meltdown in 1952 at Chalk River, Canada. He and his Naval unit were dispatched to help with the reactor and the grim reality of how close the reactor and radiation came to endangering the surrounding area had a lasting influence on Carter. The Chalk River accident shaped his thinking about how to use nuclear energy in safer ways.

In 1953, Carter's active duty stint in the Navy was finished and he returned to Plains with his wife and growing family. He did remain in the United States Naval Reserve until 1961. Throughout the 1950s, Carter successfully ran the family peanut farm and also began participating in local politics.

Carter Becomes a Southern Politician

Jimmy Carter got involved in local political organizations in and around Plains, Georgia and won an elected seat in the Georgia State Senate in 1962. He followed that with campaigns for the office of governor. He lost his first run for governor but he ran a second time in 1970 and won. In addition to his gubernatorial duties, Carter expanded his political work and began garnering national attention when he became the Chair of the Democratic National Committee.

During his tenure as governor, Carter expanded legislation protecting the civil rights of African Americans and he sought to make state government smaller. One of Carter's most notable achievements came when he created the Georgia Heritage Trust, a state agency specifically committed to protecting the cultural history, public lands and native species of Georgia. Created by Carter by Executive Order, the Georgia Heritage Trust became a model for other states to protect their cultural and natural resources.

Through his work with the Democratic Party, Carter attracted national attention for his civil rights record and for his passionate pursuit of environmental causes . In 1974 Carter entered his name into the race for the Democratic Party nomination to run for president. He won that nomination and in 1976, Carter ran for president against Republican Gerald Ford. Carter won the election and he was sworn in as the President of the United States on January 20, 1977.

Carter Presidency

The 1970s had been a decade of progress for environmental issues. President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and Congress passed a few laws to protect air, water and the oceans including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and legislation to prohibit use of many pesticides and insecticides. Jimmy Carter was eager to contribute to environmental issues and expand on the progress made. His experiences as a farmer and with agricultural science and his engineering background all influenced Carter in his environmental policies. A few months after his inauguration he spoke to Congress in an address called his Environment Message to the Congress.

In his lengthy message, Carter outlined his goals with seven main points and offered very detailed descriptions for each one of those points. His seven points were:

  1. Pollution and Health
  2. Energy and the Environment
  3. The Urban Environment
  4. Natural Resources
  5. The Natural Heritage
  6. Global Environment
  7. Improving Government

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