ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Newt Gingrich was always a lot more green than most of his conservative Republican colleagues in Congress. In the early 1970s, before he entered politics, he taught a college course in environmental studies.
He continues to espouse a conservative brand of conservation that he calls mainstream environmentalism in a new book called "A Contract with the Earth," he co-wrote it with Terry Maple.
Gingrich says he grew up a conservationist and there was nothing inconsistent about being green and being Republican - until later.
Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Author, "A Contract with the Earth"; Former Speaker of the House): What I discovered starting in the '80s was that the leading environmental groups on the left - particularly the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters - began to equate the environment with litigation, regulation, taxation, bureaucracy. And you either were for their solution or you were against the environment.
And so what happened was conservatives began to say, wait a second, if you're telling me that in order to be pro-environment, I've got to be for bigger government, more red tape. For example the super fund, which is a mess. Which about half the money we spent on super fund has been spent on red tape, bureaucrats and litigation. Now, that's not what people wanted. People wanted the money spent on engineering, on actually cleaning up, on getting back to using it.
SIEGEL: But the tension for Republicans when it came to environmentalism, you say - even though Theodore Roosevelt was their patrimony and had brought all these issues to American consciousness - the issue was regulation and litigation. That would (unintelligible).
Mr. GINGRICH: And centralized control on Washington. I mean, it's very ironic - first of all, the Environmental Protection Agency was created under a Republican president. As you point out, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican president, was the father of modern federal conservation in the national forest and dramatically expanded our conservation efforts. The great environmentalist who founded things like the Audubon Society, the New York Zoological Society, were almost all Republicans.
And if you read Lou Cannon's last book on Reagan called "Governor Reagan," Reagan in California was very - relatively pro-environment. And part of our point in writing "A Contract with the Earth" was to communicate to people that it's possible to have a science-and-technology-based, entrepreneurial, free-market approach that incentivizes the development of new systems and new approaches and new technologies that can lead you to a better environment we believe faster and with greater likelihood of achievement than you're going to get by focusing on regulation and litigation and bureaucracy and trial lawyers.
SIEGEL: If, in fact, you had had to vote in the U.S. Senate a few years ago, when Senators McCain and Lieberman had a measure opted that would have required industrial plants to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, would you have voted with them or against them?
Mr. GINGRICH: I probably would have voted against them. I would have cheerfully voted for a tax credit in favor of implementing carbon-reducing technologies. I'm very much in favor of incentives, and I think that there are ways to get this done. But I think if we simply impose restrictions in American auto companies, we have a fair chance of bankrupting Ford and GM.
SIEGEL: You acknowledged that there's global warming and that human behavior has contributed to global warming. There's not a difference between you and, say, former Vice President Gore on that basic point?
Mr. GINGRICH: Well, there are two big differences. What I acknowledge is that, as a conservative, I think that caution is a key part of conservatism. And so I don't think you have to prove the argument about carbon loading the atmosphere to reach the conclusion that it would be prudent to try to find economically useful ways to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. And I'm quite prepared up to that point to go along. I think if you look at Vice President Gore's film and other things, he suggests radically greater problems. And then, frankly, doesn't suggest solutions that are comparable to the size of the problem he's designed.
And I'll give specific example. If we had the same amount of electricity production from nuclear power as the French, we would take two billion, two hundred million tons of carbon a year out of the atmosphere. That's 15 percent better than Kyoto, by that one policy change. Now, I think you could pass a law that would enable the development of safe, modern nuclear reactors with the same speed of construction as Japan has, which is about five years, and you could make it very desirable for the entire next wave of electricity production to come in forms that had no carbon loading at all. So you're able to actually accelerate the evolution of a hydrogen economy, which is the ultimate long-term solution if you can get to it.
SIEGEL: It seemed for a while, as we were awaiting publication of the book, that this book might also be the manifesto of the Gingrich 2008 campaign. It turned out, you decided not to run. Why not? Why not make a run on these ideas?
Mr. GINGRICH: I think that in the current setting, I can actually communicate more clearly and more consistently as a citizen with ideas than I could have as a candidate. And I couldn't, frankly, figure out a model that gets you from where I was to being able to have this conversation with the whole country in the context of a presidential campaign. I think they are currently so totally focused on raising money and so totally focused on audition programs where 10 or 11 people stand around and get 30-second sound bites. That it's very hard to imagine how you have a genuine dialogue and no serious person thinks those are debates.
SIEGEL: So the audition notion is we get to watch each of these people in the couple of sound bites and see how they would do, doing news conferences at…
Mr. GINGRICH: Well, yeah. Basically - yeah. And we turn power over to the media because they're the ones who get to decide what the questions are. And it's a sign of the degree to which the cross between entertainment and the news media have come to dominate politics to, I think, to the expense of the country.
SIEGEL: In some ways, the decision that you have made and the reasons you are giving are in some ways parallel to what Al Gore has discovered, being an advocate of his view of what to do about global warming. And it's not a very healthy comment on what it's like to be running for office or to be holding elective office rank.
Mr. GINGRICH: That's right. Look, I think the McCain-Feingold law and the regulatory regime that preceded it has been stunningly destructive of politics in America. I talked to a candidate the other day who did 68 fundraisers in September. Now, if you do 68 fundraisers in one month, you're not thinking about policy. You're not thinking about issues. You're not learning about what's going on in the world. You are just totally exhausted from begging. And I think it is a terribly disruptive system, and I think that we need to have a national conversation about how to replace this mess with a more rational, much shorter, much more focused experience, you know, maybe the New Hampshire primary should be in May to have this…
SIEGEL: In May of the year of the election or in May of the year before the election?
Mr. GINGRICH: No.
CONAN: We're getting closer to the other.
Mr. GINGRICH: Good question, good question. That's exactly right. May of the year of the election. I proposed, along with Marvin Kalb that we have nine 90-minute dialogues from Labor Day to the election, so that the two candidates would be on a stage by themselves with timekeeper, but no moderator and just have a conversation. And that if you did that, you would change the entire tone of American politics.
SIEGEL: Well, Newt Gingrich, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. GINGRICH: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's former speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich. His new book is called "A Contract with the Earth." And you can take Newt Gingrich's quiz to see if you are a mainstream environmentalist at npr.org. You'll also find previous Climate Connection stories from NPR and from National Geographic.