Newt GingrichNewt Gingrich, green conservative.Photo: Gage SkidmoreA couple of years ago, Newt Gingrich was sounding like a climate activist. The former Republican speaker of the House posed with current Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a couch in front of the Capitol for a 2008 ad sponsored by Al Gore’s organization, the Alliance for Climate Protection. “[O]ur country must take action to address climate change,” Gingrich said, calling on Americans to “demand action from our leaders.”

In his new book To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, Gingrich pushes a strikingly different view, decrying “the doomsday theory of climate change,” which he attributes to the “high-tax, big-bureaucracy, job-killing, and government-centralizing environmentalism of the Left.”

A vehement critic of the Obama administration — opposing its approach to the Gulf oil spill, energy and climate legislation, and much else — Gingrich calls for a “green conservatism — a new pathway to environmental stewardship.” He characterizes this philosophy as “optimistic, positive … entrepreneurial, market-based, and incentive-led.” He calls the Tea Party movement “a good way to spread green conservatism.”

Gingrich is busy these days promoting his book — and himself.  He’s mulling a 2012 presidential bid, planning to make a decision on whether to run by spring of next year.  I spoke with Gingrich recently by phone about BP, global warming, green conservatism, and Rwandan gorillas.

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Q. What’s your take on the BP spill and the response of the Obama administration?

A. The president has been floundering. The U.S. government underestimated the scale of the disaster for the first couple of weeks after the spill. Then you have a complete failure to coordinate potential resources from foreign countries that offered assets that could have helped cope with the oil flow. I don’t think the government even understood what they were being offered because the bureaucracy is so incompetent and the disorganization is so complete.

Q. What would you have done differently?

A. You’ve got to fundamentally overhaul MMS, the Army Corp of Engineers, and the Coast Guard’s emergency response system. You have to rethink these agencies because our current bureaucratic structure does not allow modern technology to get into the government very rapidly. So you’ve got long-term civil servants who may have been technically capable 25 years ago but they are now in the new world with new technologies and very often don’t understand what they are dealing with.

Q. Would you also tighten the safety standards for offshore drilling and require stricter enforcement of these standards?

A. They’ve got to look very carefully at what actually went wrong. We frankly don’t understand fully what went wrong.

Q. Do you think the safety measures are adequate as is?

A. I don’t think we know.

Book cover.Q. In your book, you say a core theory of green conservatism is that “wealth and freedom generally lead to better environmental practices.” BP had loads of wealth and freedom — then it ignored safety measures and the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded. How do you reconcile this?

A. Well, sometimes greed and stupidity undermine the benefits of wealth and freedom. BP should be required to pay every penny of the cleanup and be held accountable for all the damages done to any party by this disaster. That provides a signal to other companies: Don’t be stupid.

But wealth and freedom as a general rule make it possible to produce more things better. There are over 30,000 wells in the Gulf — we’ve had one blowout in 30,000 wells. I think you learn from the mistakes. You figure out new and better approaches and you go back and try again.

Q. So are you saying that wealth and freedom sometimes confer environmental benefits, but in this case they didn’t?

A. In this case there was a mistake. And you’re going to have mistakes.

Q. How can we prevent these kind of mistakes if not with better regulatory oversight?

A. You try to ensure that the best [drilling] practices are followed. But you also have to recognize that sometimes there will be things that happen that you can’t control. It’s like having car wrecks. You have to build a response system.

Q. Do you think greed and stupidity are a part of human nature?

A. Sadly, yes.

Q. How can wealth and freedom confer the greatest environmental benefits if humanity is fundamentally greedy and stupid?

A. Political systems also have greed and stupidity. But they are more centralized and politicians have more power.

The point isn’t that wealth and freedom will lead to utopia. The point is, if your choice is between greed and stupidity in bureaucracies and greed and stupidity in free markets, as a general rule, free markets produce greater wealth and greater opportunity for more people.

Q. What is your position on climate change? How much of a threat do you think it poses?

A. It’s an act of egotism for humans to think we’re a primary source of climate change. Look at what happened recently with the Icelandic volcano. The natural systems are so much bigger than manmade systems. I am very dubious about claims that we know precisely what’s going to happen. And I’m very suspicious of the use of those claims to create much larger governments with much greater bureaucratic controls over our life.

Q. In 2008, you appeared in an ad with Nancy Pelosi in which you said that America “must take action to address climate change.” Why have you flip-flopped?

A. I haven’t flip-flopped. The actions I would take would include nuclear power and the use of renewables. For much less cost than what Al Gore wants to spend, you can incentivize dramatic changes.

Q. I’m sorry, I’m confused. You’ve said on the one hand you’re not sure climate change is human-caused. On the other, America should take action to address climate change.

A. I think the carbon of the atmosphere is something we should deal with. To give you an example, if you had the same percent of American electricity from nuclear that you get in France, you would take 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year out of the atmosphere.

Q. You have applauded CEOs of GE and Duke Energy and Wal-Mart and other major industry executives for leading environmental progress in the country. These same executives are supporting a regulatory cap on carbon, saying they need federal regulations that provide market certainty.

A. What they are really telling you? They’re telling you they are so afraid that the Environmental Protection Agency will be used that they would rather have a law than have the Environmental Protection Agency make their life even more miserable.

Q. So you think these people actually aren’t concerned about climate change and don’t support a cap on carbon emissions?

A. I’m just saying there are a lot of people who are driven to take positions because they are genuinely afraid the government will make their life even more miserable through regulatory devices.

Q. You vehemently oppose a cap on carbon emissions. Economists say that greenhouse gases are imposing costs on the public that the emitters aren’t paying. Why should the public have to pay these costs?

A. Creating a regime to regulate carbon emissions would profoundly change the entire economy and guarantee the export of an amazing number of jobs to China and India. I regard the cap-and-trade bills as full employment acts for China and India.

Q. Your energy proposals consist largely of incentives — essentially, subsidies. You’ve also fought efforts to remove subsidies from fossil fuels. If you support free, open, and competitive markets, shouldn’t you support removing subsidies that distort the market?

A. Not if you believe that a low-cost energy regime is essential to our country — both in terms of its internal transportation cost and its competitiveness in the world market.

Q. Fossil fuels are not low-cost when you consider their external toll on national security and the environment.

A. I don’t think you can find any rational economic model that cuts the use of carbon by 83 percent in the time frame people are talking about without crushing the American economy.

Q. You have supported nuclear, solar, wind, smart grid, and other emerging technologies. Do you see incentives as the only way to push these markets to evolve?

A. Absolutely. There’s no evidence in American history that regulations and punishments work to create a better future.

Q. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are widely lauded as successful legislation. Would you support rolling them back?

A. Depends on what you mean by rolling back. 

Q. Do you think the government should have specific targets for clean water and clean air that can’t be surpassed?

A. Not necessarily.

Q. You don’t think a law should say the air has to be X percent clean?

A. No, I don’t.

Q. You describe yourself as passionate about the environment. What experiences in your life shaped your commitment to this issue?

A. Growing up, I loved the natural world. I wanted to be either a zoo director or an invertebrate paleontologist when I was young.

Q. You argue that many environmental problems have been ignored due to what you call “the global warming obsession.” What do you think are the biggest environmental challenges we’re facing?

A. We have a substantial biodiversity problem, particularly in the Third World where I think there is a grave danger that you’re going to lose an amazing number of keystone species like mountain gorillas. We have to create economic policies that sustain those habitats. Local people have to have an investment in the preservation of species or it won’t happen.

My wife Callista and I went hiking in Rwanda in February and went up to look at mountain gorillas at about 9,500 feet, and many of the people who were with us — porters helping us do the trek up the mountain — had formerly been poachers. So the wilderness skills that had made them effective poachers turned them into effective guides.

Q. In your book you call for citizen leadership to protect the environment. What do you do in your personal life to promote sustainability? What kind of car do you drive, for instance?

A. I drive a hybrid, if that helps anything.

Q. And your home?

A. All I can tell you is I’d bet you a great deal of money that the carbon footprint of my home is radically smaller than Al Gore’s. I’ll leave it at that.