Slate invited Newt Gingrich to take readers’ questions on Washingtonpost.com about the best ways to address global warming. An unedited transcript of the chat follows. See the schedule of Slate’s upcoming Earth Chats.
Newt Gingrich: I want to start by saying that I believe we need an entrepreneurial, science and technology oriented approach to the environment, and that most Americans agree with that. If you go to www.americansolutions.com, and pull up the Platform of the American People, you will see that a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans all agree that entrepreneurs can do more than bureaucrats to solve environmental challenges.
Newt Gingrich: I think the tragedy has been that conservatives have been unwilling to spend the time and energy to debate the left on which will produce the better outcome.
For example, if you are really worried about carbon loading of the atmosphere…if the United States produced the same percentage of our electricity from nuclear power as the French, we would take 2 billion, 200 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere a year, and that one step would be 15 percent better than the total Kyoto goal for the U.S.
So with that as an example, I look forward to answering your questions.
Cedar Falls, Iowa: To what extent should the federal government finance research and development for green technologies?
Newt Gingrich: Very substantially in three forms.
1. Tripling the size of the Nat’l Science Foundation.
2. By creating significant tax credits for R&D and the development of new replacement technologies.
3. By offering very bold prizes that would be tax free for key breakthroughs such as a mass-producible hydrogen car.
Chicago: Mr. Gingrich, I was wondering what your thoughts were on a carbon tax versus a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions. Do you favor either? Why? Thanks!
Newt Gingrich: Neither. I prefer incentives to punishments because they work faster and with less distortion of the economy. For instance, I favor tax credits for dramatically reducing carbon emissions. I favor a tax credit for trading in old cars that are the most polluting. I favor a tax credit for nuclear power, solar, and wind.
Huron, S.D.: Sir, with Congress and the current president barely able to negotiate a bathroom break, and the promise of Republican payback looming if the Democrats take power in 2009, what leads you to believe that this issue will be any different than so many others as important? This issue is critical to our survival, but has been prioritized by our country as only a middle layer of the onion yet to be peeled. Who has to give what, and how much?
Newt Gingrich: The reason we founded American Solutions and the reason we developed the Platform of the American People (containing items supported by a majority of Democrats, independents, and Republicans) was to find issues that bring us together so we can have a red, white, and blue dialogue instead of a red vs. blue debate.
One of the things we should propose to our politicians is that they spend 3 days a week working on items they agree on, and 2 days a week on items they know they will disagree on.
Anyone who says they can’t find things we agree on should be fired, because it is simply not true. In the end, we get the elected officials we tolerate.
Kensington, Md.: Kudos to you for this new initiative, and we all need for you to be successful (speaking as a liberal here). But why do you suppose conservatives have been so virulently hostile to science these past few decades? It’s really like watching the 16th century papacy coming to terms with astronomy.
Newt Gingrich: Since I headed the Republican House which doubled the size of the NIH budget, served on the Hart-Rudman Comission, which said the decline of math and science education was our second greatest threat as a country, and helped save the international space station when short-sighted people wanted to kill it, I’m not sure I identify with your question.
New York: Mr. Gingrich, do you have a suggestion as to why an absolute neophyte to the anthropogenic global warming concept should discount the recent evidence regarding the Medieval Warm Period? I am a former firm believer in AGW myself, yet I no longer support the theory, as I have not heard a single prominent environmental advocate who can discount the higher temperatures and lower carbon dioxide concentrations of that period.
Newt Gingrich: You raise a good point, and as somebody that studies paleontology, I am well aware we have had much higher carbon levels (pre-historic time periods, probably caused by volcanoes) and much higher temperatures in the past. In addition, around 11,000 years ago, the Gulf Stream stopped for 600 years for reasons we don’t understand. Europe went into an ice age. Then the Gulf Stream restarted for reasons we don’t understand and the ice age disappeared.
So a great deal of the “current science” is in fact politics.
However, the word “conservative” includes “conservation” as its root. And conservatives should be cautious. Therefore, I am willing to look for methods of lowering carbon that do not destroy the economy or give the government increased power.
Washington: Critics of the property rights platform of the Contract With America argued that requiring the public to routinely pay to protect the environment would impose large and unfair financial burdens on the taxpayer as well as derail environmental protections. Where do you stand now on that part of the Contract?
Newt Gingrich: I think property rights are an inherent part of our constitutional liberty and I do not understand those who would steal without compensation. If it is important enough, the government can pay for it. Taking without compensation is tyranny.
McLean, Va.: In the 1990s, when you ran the House, you tried to shut down the Department of Energy, successfully cut research funding and other support for all clean energy research (including biofuels), fought (actually stopped) the joint government-industry effort to develop a superefficient car, shepherded efforts to zero out all the programs aimed specifically at reducing greenhouse emissions and accelerating technology deployment, and eliminated the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Considering your actual record, why should we take your prescriptions seriously?
Newt Gingrich: Well, Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading biologists in the world, described me as the savior of the Endangered Species Act. As Republican whip in 1990 I helped pass the Clean Air Act which led to a dramatic improvement in acid rain. And I have been actively involved in environmental issues since I taught environmental studies at West Georgia College from 1970-78.
We should distinguish leading on the environment with sustaining bureaucracies that do little. The Office of Technology Assessment was bureaucratic and obsolete and I recommended Congress develop a relationship with the Nat’l Academy of Sciences which would give us better scientific advice. The project on the car threw money away without achievement. The Dept. of Energy is an obsolete bureaucracy that has failed to solve our nuclear waste problems despite spending an immense amount of money.
Chicago: “I prefer incentives to punishments because they work faster and with less distortion of the economy.” But didn’t a cap-and-trade system work well in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions in the 1990s?
Newt Gingrich: That cap and trade system involved a very small number of players and a very specific product. A carbon cap and trade system would be massively more complex. It would lead to corruption, political favoritism, and would have a huge impact on the economy.
I think that tax credits for reducing carbon loading would work faster in a much more decentralized way by rewarding people for doing the right thing.
Burbank, Calif.: Would you accept being Secretary of Energy if President McCain asked you?
Newt Gingrich: No but I would be willing to Chair a Commission on establishing huge tax-free prizes for all the breakthroughs we need.
South Bend, Ind.: Obviously the United States taking action on reducing its carbon emissions would be a good thing, but how would you propose to get China, India and the developing world to use greener technologies and prevent deforestation?
Newt Gingrich: You ask exactly the question which led me to write Contract with the Earth with Terry Maple. A regulatory litigation model of coercing change has no hope of being effective in China and India in the next 30 years because they are desperate for economic growth and a higher standard of living. Therefore, a successful environmental movement has to use science and technology and entrepreneurship to develop dramatically better solutions at much lower cost. For example, a very inexpensive hydrogen car would change the entire trajectory of environmental impact for China and India. CAFE standards have no prospect of working in those countries because the sheer number of additional cars would dramatically increase carbon loading. But American help in developing a next-generation hydrogen automobile system could preempt enormous quantities of carbon from every going into the atmosphere, and would be acceptable in China and India, not to mention the United States and the rest of the industrial world.
Thank you for having me. I encourage you to visit www.contractwiththeearth.com to learn more about green conservatism.