Everyone on the internets is busy mocking Newt Gingrich’s call to abolish the EPA. And that is as it should be — I would never ask anyone to stop mocking Newt Gingrich. Rarely has the universe mixed pomposity and dimwittery into such an exquisitely mockworthy package.

I do want to note, however, that what Gingrich is trying to pull off is not just old-fashioned Republican-style “leave corporate polluters alooooone!” Don’t get me wrong: Newt wants to remove constraints on polluters! But he knows (unlike his buddies in Congress) that such a baldly retrograde position will not be popular with the public, which actually likes clean air. So he needs some kind of alternative. That’s why he’s proposing to replace the EPA with something called the Environmental Solutions Agency.

Now, you’d think if we were going to take such an extraordinary step, we’d want a good sense of what an ESA would do. Instead, this is all we get:

The ESA will work with industry instead of dictating to industry and incentivize the use of newer technologies instead of punishing current businesses.

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Well then.

To get to the bottom of this, you have to understand that it’s of a piece with “green conservatism,” which Newt has been developing for years. I refer you to my previous posts on the matter:

You can read those for the nitty-gritty, but here’s the basic way to understand Newt’s goal:

Today America has reasonably successful environmental policy, which has substantially reduced air and water pollution with benefits to public health that wildly outweigh the modest costs to regulated industries.

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Alongside that, America has energy policy, which has historically been a total failure. It consists of a grab bag of inconsistent subsidies and tax credits (er, “incentives”) to energy companies. It has not succeeded in making the country more energy independent or secure; it has not succeeded in accelerating energy efficiency behind business as usual; it has not succeeded in driving a clean energy revolution. It has succeeded only in entrenching and enriching powerful fossil fuel incumbents, which are now devoted to preserving the status quo.

What Newt wants to do is replace America’s successful environmental policy with its failed energy policy — to replace serious standards and limits with voluntary measures and “incentives.”

For example, one of his proposals for the ESA is to “incentivize” the sale of flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on corn ethanol in addition to gas. This would benefit some American carmakers, and it would benefit Big Ag in Iowa (where Newt is preparing to launch a presidential bid), but it would do absolutely nothing to help the country’s air quality.

Now, you might be asking: in what sense is a policy like this “conservative”? It’s all about meddling in markets and “picking winners.” Don’t conservatives hate that stuff? What about the free market and all that?

But that’s the thing: there are no actual free-market conservatives in politics. What conservatives want to do in practice, if not in rhetoric, is manipulate markets, regulations, and legislation to benefit their corporate contributors. Newt is just a little more blatant about his corporatism — oh, and more likely to lather it in a greasy sheen of Bold New Thinking.

So that’s what’s going on. It might seem ridiculous that “green conservatism” could fool anyone, but remember, the Beltway press loves this stuff, and they’re not about to dig into the details. If you want to push back against Newt, keep in mind what his long game is here.

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