“The energy crisis is when the United States realized that they are no longer in control of global oil,” said Dr. Sarah Stanford-Mcintyre, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado. “There’s a big call by President Carter to make a switch to alternative fuel sources. It happens at the height of the environmental movement, after the first Earth Day, the creation of the E.P.A.”

President Carter made energy policy a priority, creating the Energy Department and signing the Energy Security Act, which gave incentives for geothermal and solar energy. The International Energy Agency and vehicle emission standards were also implemented. Solar panels were installed at the White House, and the president set an ambitious goal of 20 percent reliance on solar energy by 2000.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978 promoted and funded green energy research and fueled regulatory changes that broke up energy monopolies. But as oil prices dropped in the 1980s, momentum for renewable energies stalled.

In the 1990s, cheap and plentiful natural gas was winning out against renewable energies, what The New York Times called the “foundering dream” of the 1970s. Awareness of the growing threat of global warming grew in the 2000s and products with renewable-energy technologies, like the Toyota Prius, gained popularity.

World leaders are now meeting in Glasgow at COP26 to discuss the international response to climate change. The International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook report has predicted that worldwide oil demand will peak in 2025. The report cautions that the transition to renewable sources is far too slow. “The world’s hugely encouraging clean energy momentum is running up against the stubborn incumbency of fossil fuels in our energy systems,” Fatih Birol, the executive director of the I.E.A., said in a statement.

Communities of color and low-income communities have historically suffered the most from energy burdens and pollution, and are more vulnerable to climate change. A transformation of the U.S.’s energy system could shift that burden. While the price of renewables has fallen over the years, solar panels and electric vehicles are still seen as status symbols of the wealthy. But new tax credits for solar, investments in electrifying bus fleets and new EV tax credits could pave the way to an energy transition.

“It’s coming really fast,” said Dr. Stanford-Mcintyre. “The technology is there. The social energy is there. There’s interest in terms of investors. You have big banks and big investment firms funneling money into renewables right now at rates that are really big scale and exciting to watch.”

While some countries remain off-track in reaching climate goals, Dr. Black said this moment in energy transition history was different. “I’m hopeful because we’re talking about it,” he said. “Today, we’re talking about energy in an innovative, complicated way that I think really promises great movements in the direction of sustainability.”

ANNY OBERLINK, an intern at Retro Report, is a degree candidate in documentary filmmaking at CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

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