Give Newt a chance

All he is saying is that conservatives can be green, and with some good ol' know-how, America can lead the world out of its environmental troubles.

Published November 10, 2007 1:24PM (EST)

Pop quiz: What beloved American politician declined to enter the race for president to champion the environment? That's right: Newt Gingrich! The icon of American conservatism, the former speaker of the house, the co-author of the Contract With America has a new contract out; this one's called "A Contract With the Earth." It's a slim volume that serves as an inspirational green polemic for the sort of conservative who usually associates the word "environmentalist" with all that's abhorrent. Gingrich wants to convince his conservative readers that deep down, they can be green too.

Co-authored with Terry L. Maple, president of the Palm Beach Zoo and a professor of conservation at the Georgia Institute of Technology, this Contract is pro-God's green earth, waxing lyrical about tigers and the volcanic mountain forests that are home to the world's remaining mountain gorillas. Yet in taking on the world's environmental problems, the authors don't rail against coal-fired power plants, belching tailpipes or other blights upon the landscape. They reserves their ire for the classic Gingrichian scourges: regulation, taxation, litigation and big government.

Gingrich and Maple contend that those on the right -- or the "mainstream" as they dub it -- must offer their own strategy for repairing the planet, which goes beyond what those tree-hugging greens have proposed. The strategy the authors outline, in short: forget the stick, embrace the carrot. To fight global warming, they argue that governments should offer tax incentives to spur companies to stop pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and create billion-dollar prizes to inspire inventors to innovate our way to a clean energy future. In this blue-sky vision, great American entrepreneurs, not regulators and Washington bureaucrats, much less Al Gore, will protect the planet for future generations.

For those with long memories, it won't be a shock to hear Gingrich beat the drum for the environment, albeit in his free-market-lovin', tax-deploring way. Before Gingrich was a member of Congress, he taught an environmental studies class at West Georgia College. In his early years in Congress, he was known as a green conservative. By the time he became speaker, his Contract With America drew outrage from the likes of the Sierra Club for striving to undermine environmental, health and safety protections, by attempting to cripple the federal government's power to regulate. Gingrich also inspired the wrath of some conservative think tanks for defending the Endangered Species Act. In a recent interview, Gingrich told Salon that he has always been a dedicated environmentalist.

Do you call yourself an environmentalist?


What do you mean by that?

Somebody who believes that the environment is part of our heritage, and we have an absolute obligation to try to maintain it, and develop it, and sustain it. And somebody who has reverence for the extraordinary complexity that God has created in the natural world.

Do you think that we should preserve the environment primarily for economic reasons or moral ones?

First of all, I don't think that you preserve the environment. The environment is constantly changing, constantly evolving. But I think that you want to nurture the environment and protect the environment from undue damage largely for moral reasons. It's part of our quality of life, and part of our relationship to a larger world. We ourselves are diminished when the environment is diminished.

What do you think are the most important environmental issues today?

My highest focus is on biodiversity because if you follow strategies that maximize the health of plants and animals on the planet, you've almost certainly got a very healthy environment in general. Second, there is a significant challenge in carbon-loading of the atmosphere, and third, there is a tremendous challenge with water around the planet, and how to develop it as a renewable resource, and how to protect it.

Who do you think is to blame for these problems?

The human race. We have been very, very successful at using resources to make our lives longer, healthier, wealthier, and with greater choices. One of the side effects has been that we've had a bigger and bigger impact on the environment as we've grown more and more capable, particularly in manufacturing and agriculture. In the last 200 years, our capacity to have an impact has grown dramatically. Remember that people were clearing parts of Africa as early as 50,000 years ago with cutting and burning techniques.

So we've always been impacting our environment?

Well, we're a part of our environment, just as army ants, locusts and other organisms are. We're just a remarkably powerful part of our environment.

You write: "Free enterprise is not the enemy of the environment; it is the engine that will drive promising alternatives to failed practices." Yet isn't free enterprise, unfettered by regulation, at the root of some of those failed practices? And if free enterprise is going to solve those problems, why hasn't it done so already?

First of all, free enterprise creates wealth better than any other system. And wealth has been a key factor in the rise of the conservation movement. It was wealthy Americans who founded the New York Zoological Society to save the bison. It was wealthy Americans who founded the Audubon Society to save birds. I think that poor people tend to eat the organisms around them. It takes pretty wealthy people to decide that they can afford national parks. So there's a certain virtue to creating wealth.

Second, if you were to look at the history of destroying the environment, you'd have to argue that it was in fact state-owned industries in the Soviet empire that were far more destructive on a routine basis than most capitalism. And third, I don't know of anybody who argues for unregulated free enterprise. I'm a Theodore Roosevelt Republican. I like the fact that the government requires that I have clean water to drink no matter what restaurant I walk into anywhere in America.

When you were in Congress, what did you do to protect the earth?

Everything from helping pass the Clean Air Act in 1990 to working to save the Endangered Species Act and the Rhinoceros and Tiger Fund. If you look at the totality of my involvement, I've been consistently concerned about the environment going back to 1971, when I taught in the second Earth Day, and to the mid-'70s, when I was the coordinator of environmental studies at West Georgia College.

Do you think that the Contract With America was good for the environment?

I don't think that the environment was a central focus of the Contract With America. I don't think that it was bad for the environment. I don't know of a single thing in the Contract that was bad for the environment.

Didn't it promise to cut the the Environmental Protection Agency's budget and curb its ability to regulate?

If you look at some of the things we were opposed to at the time, we were probably right. But I don't think that Washington is the center of all knowledge. I very much like the work being done, for example, by the Sand County Foundation in Madison, Wis., which works on how do you get local solutions.

By the way, let me give you an example. There was a period where we had a regulation that managed creosote in telephone poles with an estimated cost of $7 trillion per life saved. Now that verges on utter irrationality and again made perfect sense to the regulators.

Do you think that the environment would be in better shape today if Al Gore had been president?

I think that's unknowable. Remember that it was under Clinton that the Senate voted 95 to 0 not to endorse Kyoto. If you go back and read Gore's last great radical document before his movie, which was his book about the earth, it has statements in it that are fairly hard to take seriously.

Such as?

That the internal combustion engine was the most dangerous development of the 20th century, something which requires you to look past Hitler, Stalin and Mao. In a way, that's kind of breathtaking.

I know you are opposed to Kyoto. Why?

Kyoto is designed in the wrong direction. It was essentially a European effort to weaken the American economy by adopting a set of rules that are not helpful to the U.S., and ironically, are not helpful in the Third World. Kyoto does not provide for counting carbon sequestration by reforestation, which the U.S. can do dramatically more than Europe, which could have a substantial impact, and which the Third World could do.

Furthermore, Kyoto basically was a deal cut by the Europeans with the Chinese and Indians, by which none of it would apply to China and India, but all of it would apply to the U.S. Nobody who looked at it carefully didn't think it was a very badly written proposal, which is why the Senate unanimously voted against it.

Why do you think that we haven't seen more leadership from the United States on global warming?

We have been caught in a trap where environmental solutions are defined on the left as higher taxes, bigger government, more regulation and more litigation, and so conservatives just shrug their shoulders; since they oppose all four of those solutions, they refuse to get engaged in environmental issues.

One of the major reasons that Terry Maple and I wrote "A Contract With the Earth" was to reopen the debate, and to say that there are solutions which involve incentives, science and technology and markets. Entrepreneurs are potentially much more powerful and successful than regulatory and litigation solutions. We ought to be having a dialogue about which solution works better rather than being engaged in a purely partisan debate to see who can yell "anti-environmentalist" more.

What do you think that the U.S. should do about global warming right now?

I think we should have a billion-dollar tax-free prize for a hydrogen engine that can be produced at a commercially available price. I think that we should have a substantial prize for developing the first engine that can be mass produced that gets 100 miles or more to the gallon of fuel. I think that we should have a substantial research program under way for dramatically better ethanol products than corn or cane sugar.

We should have a 100 percent tax write-off for investment in the technology needed to make composite-material cars using the material comparable to that which works in the 787 Dreamliner that Boeing is building. Because composite material is stronger than steel and much, much lighter than steel, and you could produce a safer car at lighter weight, which would get dramatically more mileage.

Unless you can create economically desirable, environmentally positive technologies, you are never going to get China and India to adopt. If you truly want to affect global warming, you have to have a strategy that works in the U.S. and Europe, but it also has to work in China and India, or you're just, frankly, going to fail.

How would these U.S. prizes solve the international problems around global warming?

If the prizes are designed correctly, they lead to economically desirable, environmentally better solutions. People will adopt them because they want to adopt them. There are 35,000 McDonald's around the world, about half in the U.S., and half overseas. That's because people voluntarily decided it was a better product. We didn't have to go out and beat people into doing it. People drive cars all around the world because it turns out to be a better product than riding in a horse and buggy.

I think you would find that if we could create a new generation of technological advances that both solve environmental problems and are economically desirable that you would have the planet rushing to buy American products, and rushing to buy licenses to produce American products. And it would be good for the U.S., and it would be good for the environment, and it would be good for the world.

Do you think that we should adopt a cap and trade system for carbon emissions?

I think that we'd get results dramatically faster if we adopted large tax credits for non-carbon systems, including nuclear power. If we produced the same level of our electricity from nuclear as the French do, we would take 2,200,000 tons a year of carbon out of the atmosphere. That would be 15 percent better than the Kyoto treaty goal, and it would be almost a third of all the carbon produced by the U.S. annually.

What do you think of Vice President Cheney's characterization of conservation as a "personal virtue"?

I think it is a personal virtue, but it's also a societal virtue. Theodore Roosevelt was personally active in conservation, and created the great national park system, and popularized the concept of conservation. In that sense, I'm a Theodore Roosevelt Republican.

Why are you choosing this moment to speak out on conservation and environmental issues? You haven't been so strongly associated with these issues in recent years.

I spent an awful lot of my time in the last six years on creating the Center for Health Transformation, which is a very vibrant and ongoing organization, and I spent about 40 percent of my time on national security. And as we began to develop a continuing program at the Center for Health Transformation, I was able to divert some of my intellectual energy back into the environment.

I first wanted to be a vertebrate paleontologist or a zoo director, before I got involved in public policy. I recently spoke to the Vertebrate Paleontology Society, for example. So, I have a very long interest in the natural world, and a very long interest in biological science.

Do you think that it's been a mistake for conservatives to pooh-pooh environmental concerns as so much woolly tree-hugging?

Yes. Absolutely. It's been a very significant mistake for conservatives to not recognize that Americans are overwhelmingly committed to the environment as a value. We need an environmental policy which is proactive and provides leadership both in America and around the world.

If Americans are so committed to it, though, why hasn't it risen to be an important issue in recent political campaigns?

On the left, if you take the environment seriously, you come up with policies that are so painful you can't sustain them. And on the right, since you figure you can get by just by opposing really expensive and painful policies from the left, you don't think about the environment, you think about opposing the left. I think part of what we're trying to do in "A Contract With the Earth" is create the space for a new positive environmentalism that's politically desirable.

I just released polling data at American Solutions yesterday, and you can see it at Seventy-nine percent of the country favors prizes to get new innovation in environmental solutions. The country substantially favors going to nuclear power to minimize carbon-loading the atmosphere. The country strongly supports having an energy strategy to wean the U.S. off of foreign dictators.

There was a lot of encouraging news in the polling data. It indicated that you could have a centrist, positive, solution-oriented and incentive-led approach to the environment that would be popular. It would meet the left's concern for the environment while meeting the right's concern for smaller government and lower taxes.

On global warming, you write: "Should human behavior be a cause, to any extent, it wouldn't be surprising." Do you doubt that human activity is one of the causes of global warming?

No, I accept that it is one of the causes. We don't actually know what percent of what's going on is caused by carbon, and we don't know what percent of what's going on is caused by human beings. People assert more certainty about climatology than actually exists in science right now. But I think as a conservative that it is better to be prudent, and I don't require that people convince me that this is dangerous to convince me that we need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

So far, the Republican presidential candidates have not made the environment a campaign issue. Do you regret not joining the race, so that you could put it front and center among conservatives?

No, our current campaign style is so dysfunctional that I'm not sure how you could create a leadership position from within a campaign. You almost have to create the leadership position before you run.

You talked about how wealthier societies are more concerned about environmental issues. Citizens call for clean air and clean water when, as you say, they have enough to eat. But one of the side effects of wealth is, it seems, more carbon emissions.

If you had a hydrogen car and the French level of nuclear power production for electricity, you'd have a very high quality of life, great mobility, lots of electricity, and virtually no carbon-loading. You can create very advanced technological solutions that dramatically improve life in a way that's better. The quality of air in California is better than it was 30 years ago. The quality of water in the country is better than it was 30 years ago. We have more species who have come back from the edge of extinction in the U.S. because of the wealth and the capacity to nurture that sort of effort.

Since you're speaking to a liberal audience, why do you think that liberals should be bipartisan on an issue they've basically owned?

They can own the issue forever and get nothing done. Or they can reach out and decide to have a bipartisan discussion and get something done. It's up to them to decide. Because it's very unlikely that we're going to solve the environment on a purely partisan basis.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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