Newt Gingrich's fantasy land

The former speaker of the house blames high gas prices on left-leaning politicians who want to save the environment. Even if he's right, he's still deluded.

By Andrew Leonard
May 21, 2008 8:31PM (UTC)
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When talking to liberals, as Newt Gingrich did in an interview conducted by Salon's Katharine Mieszkowski last November, the former Republican congressman likes to portray himself as a dedicated environmentalist: "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."

When talking to the subscribers of his weekly newsletter, "Winning the Future," he sings a slightly different tune, and lambastes the misguided policies of the environmentally minded "Left," which he holds responsible for the current energy crisis.


For decades left-leaning politicians have advocated higher prices and less energy. They were going to save the environment by punishing Americans into driving less and driving smaller cars. Now their policies have succeeded with a vengeance.

The very left wing politicians who favored a policy of no oil and gas exploration, no use of coal, no development of nuclear power, and no aggressive development of new technologies are now panic-stricken that their policies of higher prices have led to higher prices.

There are many things wrong with those two paragraphs, not least the idea that left-wing politicians are opposed to "aggressive development of new technologies." But we're feeling charitable today toward all former speakers of the house who attempted to shut down the federal government, so we'll be magnanimous enough to agree: Some left-leaning politicians do advocate higher prices as a way of saving the environment.

But maybe that's because, like most economists, these rabble-rousing commies recognize something that Newt Gingrich somehow fails to grasp. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. If you want to preserve the environment, and simultaneously maintain a lifestyle in which you get to drive all you want in big cars, it's going to cost you.

The discipline of environmental economics is built on the premise that if you properly price all the negative externalities associated with industrial production and economic growth, investment will be channeled into technological innovation and ways of social organization that do not pollute the air, poison the water, exterminate biodiversity and overheat the planet. But that requires that the costs of those sins are correctly assessed.


In his newsletter, Gingrich raves about the potential of exploiting the United States' massive coal reserves to achieve energy independence, if only Congress would provide the proper incentives to develop environmentally friendly "clean coal technologies." How the World Works does not subscribe to the "coal-is-the-enemy-of-the-human-race" hard-line view that believes such technologies are impossible. Humans are wily -- we can perform all kinds of magic tricks.

But it defies probability to imagine that truly clean coal will be cheap. Effectively sequestering carbon, dealing with mercury emissions, converting lumps of coal into liquid fuels suitable for transportation uses -- if you really want to dig up all that coal and use it without precipitating devastating climate change and massive health hazards, it's going to cost an awful lot of money, just as building enough nuclear power plants to take care of the energy needs of the United States is going to cost an awful lot of money. Gingrich is living in an absolute fantasy land if he believes that the kind of technological advances necessary to provide energy for a world that will soon have 9 billion people can be achieved, on an environmentally friendly basis, at bargain-basement prices.

The hilarious thing is that conservatives like Gingrich have built their political success on portraying liberals and environmentalists as out-of-touch ideologues who don't understand how the world works, when in fact the complete opposite is true. We're the ones willing to face up to the hard truth: If we want to sustain "the extraordinary complexity that God has created in the natural world," we're going to have dig deep in our pockets and pay up.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Newt Gingrich