Magazine | December 31, 2011, Issue

Some Shade of Green

The former Speaker has a longstanding love-hate relationship with environmental reform

Newt Gingrich is not a newcomer to environmental policy. He taught environmental studies as a professor at West Georgia College and attended the second Earth Day, in 1971, embracing much of that era’s environmental doomsaying. Gingrich was a member of the Sierra Club and first ran for Congress in 1974 as an avowed environmentalist. (He lost.) Though he dropped the green rhetoric before he was finally elected, he continued to back environmental causes as a young member of Congress. In the 1980s he pushed for federal controls on the industrial emissions that cause acid rain and sought to have the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated a wilderness area, permanently off-limits to oil and gas development. He also co-sponsored the Global Warming Prevention Act of 1989, which called for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to at least 20 percent below 1988 levels by the year 2000. It’s no wonder he was heralded by environmental activists. In 1989, Wilderness Society president Randall Snodgrass said Gingrich was “a conservationist in the grand old style of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.”

Notwithstanding his early record, few environmental activists today think of Gingrich as one of their own. He may not be the only Republican presidential candidate to advocate dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, but he is one of the most forceful. However much he supported climate-change regulations in the past, he eschews such policies today, and he has become a fierce proponent of domestic oil and gas development. Yet environmental issues remain important to the former Speaker.

The young Gingrich wanted to be a paleontologist or a zoo director — aspirations that still motivate him today. He borrowed the cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull from the Smithsonian for his office, and in 1997 he publicly debated T. rex eating habits with the noted paleontologist John Horner. For his 53rd birthday, while serving as Speaker, he hosted a reception for a few thousand people at Zoo Atlanta to raise money for species conservation, and he still makes time for occasional zoo visits on the campaign trail. When Knut, a four-year-old polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, died unexpectedly in March, Newt tweeted his lament, later posting his picture with the cub on Facebook.

Gingrich’s interest in zoos led to a friendship with former Zoo Atlanta director Terry Maple. In 2007, the two collaborated on an environmental manifesto, A Contract with the Earth, and they reportedly have a second environmental book in the works. Contract is an effort to marry a sincere environmental commitment with more conservative, or “mainstream,” policy principles. As Gingrich explained in the introduction, “our failure to resolve serious environmental challenges will compromise the lives of our children and our grandchildren.” Engaging citizens in a broader conservation effort, however, could “avert a catastrophe and successfully renew the earth to its natural condition of abundance and vitality.” All that is required is “a bold initiative on behalf of the natural world, dedicated to a common cause and a bridge to green prosperity.”

Contract outlines an environmental vision that relies upon incentives, entrepreneurship, and collaboration. This is Gingrich’s conservative alternative to conventional environmentalists’ reliance upon regulation, taxation, and litigation. In Gingrich’s view, it is a “tragedy” that the Right has abandoned environmental policy to the Left. Though often vague on details, Contract seeks to fill that gap.

It is easy to support collaboration instead of conflict to advance environmental values. Who would fight against that? The challenge is to move from platitudes to policy. Gingrich and Maple speak of the awe nature can inspire, and lament the failure of political leaders to translate this inspiration into action. The problem is that not everyone agrees on how much can or should be sacrificed to preserve environmental values, or even which environmental values are at stake. The dominant regulatory paradigm of environmental protection is deeply ingrained, so much so that even Gingrich and Maple find it hard to shake. Still, the effort to break the Left’s monopoly on environmentalism is long overdue.

#page#Though he has often reached out to environmentalists, there’s nothing conciliatory in Gingrich’s energy platform, which is pithily summed up in the slogan “Drill here, drill now, pay less” (which is also the title of one of his books). This agenda may lack nuance, but it’s perfectly clear: Lift restrictions on domestic energy production and incentivize the development of new energy sources across the board. “All of the above” is his energy choice, so he wants to deregulate oil and gas development but also maintain (if not expand) subsidies for alternative energy sources, including ethanol. The latter position is particularly controversial with taxpayer groups and has earned him the sobriquet “Professor Cornpone” from the Wall Street Journal. Time will tell whether it will produce the desired response in Iowa.

Energy-policy discussions almost inevitably turn to the question of global warming. Like all the Republican candidates, Gingrich adamantly opposes any effort to limit U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions through imposition of a cap-and-trade system, under which aggregate emissions would be capped and industries would be allocated emission allowances that could be bought and sold. As Gingrich has explained, such a policy would, in effect, impose “an across-the-board energy tax on every American” and “accelerate American job losses.” Yet Gingrich’s opposition to federal climate controls has not always been so resolute.

On December 4, Gingrich told Fox News that he “never favored cap-and-trade” and cited his efforts to defeat the climate legislation favored by House Democrats and President Obama. Yet in 2007 he told an interviewer that legislation imposing “mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system” and tax incentives was something he would “strongly support” and was a policy the Bush administration should have pursued more aggressively.

This is not the only time Gingrich has called for climate action. In a 2007 debate with Sen. John Kerry, he called for policies to “reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere” and “do it urgently,” though he also expressed some concern about the viability of carbon cap-and-trade. That same year he told the New York Times’s Andrew Revkin that “as a matter of prudence we ought to have less carbon loading of the atmosphere.” And then he filmed the infamous ad with Nancy Pelosi for Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection, in which he reiterated the need to “take action to address climate change,” something he now says he regrets. The ad was the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years.”

Since setting his sights on the White House, Gingrich has cooled to climate controls. He fought against the Waxman-Markey climate bill, a true regulatory behemoth. Gingrich testified that the legislation would impose a de facto carbon tax and extend federal bureaucratic control throughout the economy. It would even have empowered the energy secretary to regulate Jacuzzis. As an alternative, he proposed financial incentives for the development of new technologies; more “all of the above.” Yet Gingrich did not completely close the door on cap-and-trade, testifying that he might consider supporting such a system if it was limited to the 2,000 or so highest-emitting facilities.

Gingrich’s platform today contains nothing so equivocal on climate policy. His campaign website announces that “Newt absolutely opposes ‘cap and trade’ as well as any system of taxing carbon emissions” and that he believes “there is no settled scientific conclusion” on the threat of climate change. Gingrich has made clear he would divest the EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

Complaints about the EPA’s climate policies are just one part of Gingrich’s indictment of the agency’s regulatory overreach. He regularly attacks the EPA as an out-of-control, job-killing bureaucracy. He thinks it’s not enough to trim the EPA’s authority around the margins; instead, he wants to shut its doors and replace it with a new creation of his own devising: an Environmental Solutions Agency. “I want to restaff it,” Gingrich explained at an event organized by Politico. “I don’t think you can train the current bureaucrats. I think their bias against capitalism, their bias against local government, their bias against economic rationality, is just amazing.” So he wants to “start with a new team” that will embrace “common sense.” The question is whether the Environmental Solutions Agency would really be something different, or just an excuse for legions of bureaucrats to order new business cards.

#page#Unlike many of those who criticize the EPA, Gingrich takes pains to distinguish attacks on the agency from attacks on environmental protection. Conservation does not necessarily require maintaining a centralized regulatory bureaucracy. Gingrich concedes that some degree of regulation may be necessary, but he calls for lodging greater authority in the hands of state and local governments. “The EPA is based on bureaucrats centered in Washington issuing regulations and litigation and basically opposing things,” he complains. In its place “we need to have an agency that is first of all limited, but cooperates with the 50 states.”

Pres. Richard Nixon may have created the EPA by executive order, but the agency will not be dispatched so readily. Nor is reforming the foundational environmental statutes an easy lift. Decentralizing much environmental decision-making is a sensible idea; indeed, it’s long overdue. The question is how it can be done, both practically and politically. It’s relatively easy to proclaim the need for a new paradigm — that is one of Gingrich’s strengths. But actual policy change requires engagement with the nuts and bolts. Gingrich has shown little interest in the details of environmental policy, and has a record of resisting conservative policy reforms. As Speaker he was the primary obstacle to rewriting the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and safeguarding private-property rights from federal environmental regulation. Yet ESA reform should be uncontroversial for conservatives, since no statute better illustrates the potential divide between environmental regulation and actual environmental protection. The law imposes onerous burdens on private landowners and constrains resource use. Meanwhile, few species have recovered under the ESA’s protection, and in some cases the act may have made things worse.

Yet Gingrich intervened personally to prevent House Republicans from enacting serious reforms to the ESA, including protections for property owners, after the Republicans took over Congress in 1995. Environmentalist groups, working behind the scenes, helped arrange briefings for the Speaker by scientists committed to leaving the ESA untouched. Gingrich promised them he would keep any reform legislation they opposed off the floor while refusing to meet with free-market groups advocating greater protection of property rights and the elimination of the ESA’s perverse anti-conservation incentives.

In Contract Gingrich explains that his commitment to “environmental stewardship” led him to defend the ESA. This “historic legislation . . . has been mired in some controversy,” he acknowledged, while maintaining it was “an essential conservation tool” and an “excellent example of the value of civility, consultation, and collaboration.” For anyone remotely familiar with how the ESA operates in practice, this characterization of the act is simply bizarre. The ESA has been the source of fierce conflict and has undermined environmental stewardship on private land. The discovery of endangered species triggers costly and burdensome land-use controls, making species habitat a potential economic liability. Thus, researchers have found, the act creates powerful incentives that work against species conservation on private land — the land, it turns out, on which most endangered species depend.

The Beltway-based environmental lobby was fiercely opposed to any GOP-led ESA reform, committed as it was to the regulation- and litigation-based environmental-policy model that Gingrich elsewhere has condemned. ESA reform was precisely the sort of cause Gingrich should have supported; no issue is more ripe for a conservative, conservation-oriented alternative to the status quo.

After sabotaging ESA reform efforts, Gingrich created a special House task force on the environment, dominated by the Republican caucus’s greenest — and most liberal — members, including Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R., N.Y.), who was closer to the green lobby than most Democrats. This action made it even more difficult for conservatives to argue the case for an alternative approach to environmental protection.

In his environmental-policy pronouncements, Gingrich says many of the right things, embracing environmental values while disparaging today’s overly bureaucratic system of federal regulations. But while he may decry the political practice of picking industry winners and losers, he remains committed to ethanol subsidies. He may condemn overly prescriptive environmental regulations, but he refused to consider, let alone support, conservative efforts to reform the ESA. And before he was running for president, he sounded much more comfortable with federal caps on carbon emissions than he does now.

Gingrich has a greater interest in environmental issues than most Republican leaders and the rhetorical skill to articulate an alternative environmental vision. If anyone can challenge the  prevailing environmental orthodoxy, it should be him. The question is whether he’s willing to do it.

– Mr. Adler is the Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, a senior fellow at the Property and Environment Research Center, and the editor of Rebuilding the Ark: New Perspectives on Endangered Species Act Reform.

Jonathan H. Adler is the Johan Verhiej Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

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