Weed Whacker

by Bradford Plumer | April 11, 2007

In case anyone still has doubts as to how far rightward the GOP has veered over the last decade, consider this: Newt Gingrich, of all people, can now claim to represent the environmentalist wing of the Republican Party. He'll tell you so himself. During his debate over global warming with John Kerry yesterday in the Russell Senate Office Building, Gingrich informs a room packed with college students that he's proud of his role in saving the Endangered Species Act (ESA) when he was speaker of the House. "I believe deeply in biodiversity," the former conservative icon explains.

Now, the history books tell this story a bit differently: Back in 1994, after the Republican takeover, Gingrich appointed Richard Pombo and Don Young--two ardent anti-environmentalists--to a task force to rewrite the ESA. Only after Pombo introduced a bill that would've made it nearly impossible for any species to be listed as endangered did Gingrich balk and scuttle the whole enterprise. It's not exactly the stuff Earth Days are made of. But, in a party that has been taken over by the likes of Tom DeLay and George W. Bush, Gingrich now looks like a veritable tree-hugger.

Indeed, most Republicans would have strolled into a debate about global warming prepared to swear up and down that humans aren't really heating up the planet. Not Gingrich. Although he begins inauspiciously--waving a copy of Walter Isaacson's new biography on Albert Einstein and muttering, "Back in 1905, all the scientists would've outvoted him, too"--Gingrich actually has no beef with the consensus on climate change. When Kerry asks him what he would say to Republican deniers like James Inhofe, Gingrich takes the bait: "The evidence is sufficient that we should move toward the most effective possible steps to remove carbon from the atmosphere." Whoa. The stunned audience needs a second to adjust its worldview before applauding. Granted, Gingrich still peddles a few false claims--he says the recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts only a 23-inch rise in sea levels, at most (a number which pointedly excludes the effects of melting ice caps)--but, hey, progress is progress.

That means the two could settle in and have a productive debate for a change. Given that man-made climate change is occurring--and that its effects will be dire--what should be done about it? Kerry stumps for the reliably liberal answer: The government needs to set a cap on carbon emissions and then allow businesses to trade pollution credits. Gingrich, for his part, argues that "regulation and litigation are the least effective methods of getting a solution," and he trusts the power of an "incentivized market" to fix the problem on its own. Technologies as yet unseen will save us. Tax cuts will get us there. It's all of a piece with Gingrich's long-documented futurist outlook. But, as he unveils his starry eyed vision, Gingrich reveals that, despite his green conversion, he's still sticking by some of the most pernicious dogmas of the conservative movement.

Neither Kerry nor Gingrich want to dispute the basic problem facing the planet. Scientists increasingly agree that, as a rule of thumb, we should try to prevent average global temperatures from rising another 1-2 degrees Celsius, and that means stabilizing carbon concentrations in the atmosphere at about 450 parts per million (we're currently clocking in at around 380). So the world has about ten years to get the right policies in place. Now the fun begins. A cap-and-trade system, Kerry argues, would set nationwide emissions limits and then allow industries to figure out for themselves the best ways to reach that goal. (A carbon tax would accomplish much the same thing--and likely much more efficiently--but taxes are radioactive politically.) Kerry recognizes that China and India will also have to reduce their emissions if that 450 ppm limit is to be met, but he trusts that they will eventually follow America's lead. (And if they don't, he hints, the United States and Europe just might be able to use trade policy down the road to induce them to change their behavior.)

Gingrich criticizes Kerry's approach for giving too much power to unelected bureaucrats. As an alternative, he would have the government offer enormous tax credits to companies that develop non-carbon energy sources. ("You want to raise sufficient pain [so that businesses shift course]... I want to raise sufficient pleasure," Gingrich explains, garnering laughs.) It's not a bad idea--nearly everyone supports federal spending on alternative energy--but it's hard to see how massively ramping this process up would remove government from the process. Congress would still have to pick and choose which business ventures are most promising and therefore deserving of subsidies. After Kerry points out that companies like General Electric have lately been demanding a nationwide cap on carbon so that their carbon-free technology could have a shot at becoming competitive, Gingrich suggests that, instead, the government might sit down with G.E. and simply ask the company how much money it needs to make that technology cost-effective. But what happens if G.E. fails to deliver? Tough luck? Without a mandatory cap, there's no way of guaranteeing that emissions will fall.

Meanwhile, Gingrich cites a recent front-page story from The Washington Post documenting the problems with Europe's cap-and-trade regime. Among other things, well-connected companies have been lobbying for various exemptions. That's a real concern--and one reason why many economists prefer a carbon tax. But "incentivized markets" are no less prone to the predations of K Street. Thanks to Iowa's place in the primary schedule, politicians in the United States regularly hand out obscene subsidies to ethanol producers--despite ample evidence that ethanol is a fairly lackluster alternative to fossil fuels. That's not a decisive knock against federal technology subsidies (at least one study has found that such funding, combined with strict pollution regulations, can actually be more effective, and lead to more innovation, than cap-and-trade alone--although the strict regulations are an integral part of that equation here). But it's silly to pretend that Gingrich's tax-cutting approach would somehow be immune from lobbying pressures.

Gingrich accuses environmentalists of being in thrall to ideology, whereas he believes "common sense can lead to solutions that work." But his stance isn't any less ideological. Throughout the debate, he denounces cap-and-trade because it would create "bureaucracy," as if that epithet alone renders carbon trading self-evidently wrong. An incredulous Kerry responds that a cap-and-trade system worked quite well with acid-rain legislation in the 1990s--despite the fact that conservatives worried about the "bureaucracy" and excessive costs back then, too. And he points out that it took an international agreement to restrict CFCs, rather than market incentives alone, to save the ozone layer. But Gingrich doesn't budge. If it involves more regulation, it can't possibly be good. "We're talking about a massive increase in government power," he warns--a bit rich coming from a guy who has recently suggested we revisit the First Amendment. (To be fair, he's hardly the first conservative to believe that environmental standards are the short route to totalitarianism, whereas an expanded national-security state is nothing to fear.)

In the end, the former speaker himself offers perhaps the most elegant explanation of why global warming is a difficult problem for conservatives--even for someone who, like himself, professes to care deeply about the environment. "For most of the last 30 years, the environment has been a powerful emotional tool for bigger government and higher taxes," he says. "Even if it's the right thing to do, you end up fighting it because it's bigger government and higher taxes." Jonathan Chait has argued in TNR that conservatism's adherence to this sort of dogma makes it a less pragmatic governing philosophy than liberalism. Gingrich may be greener than your average Republican, but he's not ready to stray too far off the reservation.

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