Newt Gingrich digs a new trench

Newt GingrichNewt Gingrich is the Republican former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives best-known for battling President Bill Clinton on just about everything and overseeing the process that led to Clinton’s impeachment. He and a wave of Republican congresspeople swept into office in 1994 on a Mike Harris/Ralph Klein-like set of promises to toughen welfare rules, lengthen prison sentences, and cut taxes; they called it their Contract with America.

He was a polarizing figure and a happy warrior against practically any cause identified with the political left, including traditional environmentalism; Gingrich has long been a climate-change skeptic, although he abruptly changed his tune around the time he started musing about running for president himself in 2008. The other day he debated Senator John Kerry on global warming — not on the fact of it, which Gingrich freely acknowledges, but what to do about it. From the Boston Globe:

But if the debate was proof of the emerging political consensus that global warming is for real, it also showed that profound disagreements remain over how to tackle the problem. In his remarks, Gingrich proposed giving polluters tax incentives to reduce their carbon emissions voluntarily, an approach Kerry derided as inadequate.

“That’s like saying, ‘Barry Bonds, go investigate steroids,’ ” shot back Kerry, who favors a government-imposed limit on emissions and a system that would allow businesses to buy and sell credits entitling them to release a certain amount of carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

Gingrich criticized the limit proposed by Kerry and said the senator’s policy was to create a “level of pain” to compel businesses to cut their emissions, whereas he said he wanted to create a “level of pleasure” through tax breaks that would give incentives to polluters to develop new carbon-reducing technologies.

I don’t want to diminish the significance of Gingrich’s acknowledgment of the threat of climate change in a political culture where plenty of elected officials maintain that climate change is a myth literally as an article of faith. It’s a big deal, and might all by itself cost him any chance he might ever have imagined he had at the Republican nomination. But what he’s proposing might be considered a new entry in the climate-change skeptic’s list of pat answers. Previously, there have been four:

  1. Climate change isn’t happening
  2. It’s happening but it’s not our fault
  3. It’s happening and it is our fault but there’s nothing we can do about it
  4. It’s happening and it is our fault and we could have done something about it, but it’s too late to do anything about it now.

The Gingrich approach can slot in as number 3.5: It’s happening and it is our fault and we should do something about it, but nothing that’s going to make any difference.

Tax breaks in this area are nearly as bad as subsidies. They’re open to all kinds of political manipulations — do we include this technology developed in the committee chairman’s district or that technology they make in Japan, and so on — and require the government to take on  responsibility for monitoring compliance. Besides, a government in as deep financial trouble as the U.S. government can’t responsibly talk about using tax cuts for policy leverage at this point.

There might not be enough tax breaks in the world to entice a high-polluting company to make fundamental changes, anyway. The basic problem we all have to contend with is that fossil fuels are too cheap because we’ve socialized many of the costs associated with burning them. For alternative forms of energy and alternative industrial processes that use less of it to take hold, they have to be financially competitive with the artificially cheap fossil fuels. What Gingrich is proposing necessarily means a permanent effort to subsidize, one way or another, the difference in cost between those cheap fossil fuels and the low-pollution alternatives.

This can’t work, and it certainly isn’t conservative.

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