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Kerry and Gingrich Face Off on Climate Change

by Pamela Leavey

John Kerry and Newt Gingrich faced off this morning “in a friendly exchange” on the issue of Global Warming in a debate on Capitol Hill.

They began by promoting each other’s books. Gingrich said Kerry’s new book, “This Moment on Earth: Today’s New Environmentalists and Their Vision for the Future,” is “a very interesting read” and said he agrees with 60 percent of it. Kerry hasn’t read Gingrich’s new book on the environment, due out later this year, but said he has always enjoyed their exchanges.

Then the two argued for nearly two hours about whether the government should cap emissions of greenhouse gases or whether tax breaks will encourage businesses to do so.

Kerry said no environmental crisis has ever been solved voluntarily, without government intervention. “That’s like saying, ‘Barry Bonds, go investigate steroids,’ or letting Enron take control of pensions,” said the Massachusetts senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

Libby Quaid reports for AP News, “The arguments were typical for their political parties, although Gingrich is farther to the left of some Republicans who dispute the science behind climate change.”

Kerry asked what Gingrich would say to Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who calls global warming a hoax.

“My message, I think, is that the evidence is sufficient that we should move toward the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading in the atmosphere,” Gingrich replied.

He explained that conservatives often worry that the prescription for environmental problems will be bigger government and higher taxes.

Think Progress has a video clip and the transcript of the Inhofe discussion here. And, incase you missed the debate, Minnesota Public Radio has a 53 minute audio of the debate here.

John Kerry’s opening remarks from the debate, which followed Gingrich’s opening remarks, are as follows:

I truly appreciate Newt Gingrich’s willingness to debate climate change with me today.

It’s refreshing to hear a conservative politician take climate change seriously as a national challenge. It’s helpful that he knows a lot about science, especially biology, and doesn’t simply rely on slurs against the good faith of those who disagree with him. And as always, Mr. Gingrich shows an inspiring confidence in the power of American ingenuity in making the problem of climate change an opportunity for U.S. businesses, scientists and engineers.

But ultimately, when you boil off the realism and optimism of his language, he’s marching in lock step with the climate change deniers, the pessimists and the polluters in arguing that real national action to address climate change is either unnecessary or impossible. If he were in charge of the Bush administration’s energy and environmental work, you’d hear a different kind of rhetoric all right, but it’s not clear to me any of the policies would change. His stubborn conviction that government’s only role on this topic is to study it to death, to get out of the way of industry, to set voluntary goals for greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps to throw some taxpayers’ dollars at companies that do the right thing, shows that even the smartest conservatives have a long way to go in coming to grips with one of the most urgent challenges facing this country in the current century, and perhaps in our entire history.

Let me first address Mr. Gingrich’s suggestion that the science of climate change is so unsettled that we need more studies before acting. Now I’m all for an accelerated effort to invest in scientific research to measure climate change and its causes, and to carefully assess our progress and the world’s towards a solution. But we’re now clearly past the point where we need to document the reality of climate change, its potentially catastrophic effects on human life, the ways in which we are contributing to it, and the steps needed to reverse the trends before it is too late.

The gold standard for research on this subject is provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collaboration of more than 2,000 scientists from 130 countries. Looking for “research” outside the consensus findings of the IPCC is like looking for a lake in the Sahara Desert; it’s a waste of time. The IPCC is releasing its fourth major report later this month, but it’s already released its major findings and recommendations, and they are conclusive.

Global warming is real and ever-accelerating, these scientists say. There’s now a 90 percent probability that heat-trapping pollution, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, has been the main factor in causing global warming since 1950, these scientists say. And if we don’t reduce, much less increase, this fossil fuel consumption, then the earth will warm by 4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit during this century, with the best estimate being about 7 degrees Fahrenheit. A change of this magnitude would likely produce climate consequences on a scale that brings to mind the calamities predicted in the Book of Revelation, including massive increases in sea levels, a radical escalation of droughts and floods, an explosion of climate-related diseases, and conditions in which many areas of the world that are heavily populated and often desperately poor will become uninhabitable.

Worse yet, these scientists say, global warming will release additional greenhouse gases, especially methane, currently locked up in frozen ground, compounding the greenhouse effect even more. And you no longer have to simply imagine the impact of global warming, since it’s already becoming apparent in the rapid melting of Arctic ice, the uptick in violent storms, and significant changes in overall temperatures.

Now it’s true the IPCC, using its most conservative assessments, concedes there’s a 10% possibility that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are not the major cause of global warming, but I’d ask you this: if you bought a plane ticket today knowing you had a 10% probability of reaching your destination safely, would you get on that plane? You’d have to be much more of an optimist than even Newt Gingrich to accept that gamble, and when it comes to climate change, we are gambling with everything on earth we care about, including our prosperity, our security, our health, our values and even our freedom.

So sure, let’s accelerate the scientific study of climate change and its causes and solutions, but not at the expense of immediate action to prevent its worst consequences.

And that brings me to the next problem I have with Mr. Gingrich’s presentation, the belief that we can somehow address climate change through deregulation, voluntary action, and what I guess you might call rhetorical enchantment.

There’s no question that dumb government policies, illustrated by the Bush administration’s frantic efforts to increase oil and gas development, can make environmental problems worse. But if voluntary action were sufficient to address environmental challenges, we would have never needed to enact the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act, and I don’t think Mr. Gingrich would argue for that proposition.

The fundamental reality is that climate change, like other environmental problems, reflects a market failure, for the simple reason that the costs associated with fossil fuel consumption are not reflected in the price of the energy products and technologies that create these costs. That’s why government action is necessary. And that’s not just my opinion. It’s the opinion of growing numbers of corporate executives, as reflected in the recent Call to Action by the U.S. Climate Change Partnership, representing among others such corporate giants as Alcoa, BP America, Caterpillar, Duke Energy, DuPont, FPL Group, General Electric, Lehman Brothers, PG&E, and PNM Resources. They understand that only a strong public commitment to mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, which the Bush administration continues to fight, tooth and nail, can make markets work efficiently to create the new, clean energy technologies Newt Gingrich speaks about so inspiringly, and to make energy conservation pay for all of us.

And that brings me to the final point I want to make about Mr. Gingrich’s presentation: his suggestion that we cannot afford to take quick national action on climate change.

If the IPCC’s reports represent the gold standard of scientific research on climate change, the gold standard for research on the costs and benefits of action and inaction on climate change is provided by the Stern Review, named for former chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern, and released in October of last year. According to this report, if we act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the total costs of avoiding catastrophic climate change can be limited to about 1% of global gross domestic product each year. That sounds like a lot, but the Stern Review also concludes that if we don’t act, the costs won’t simply go away—they will rise to at least 5% of global GDP within 20 years, and could go as high as 20% of GDP later. It’s hard to even imagine the impact that would have on our quality of life, totally aside from the effects of climate change itself.

Moreover, the sooner we undertake these costs, the greater our opportunity to minimize them, and to unleash the potentially vast benefits of placing America in a leadership position in the international clean energy markets that will soon represent the fastest growing economic sector of the 21st century.

I remember when Newt Gingrich worked with many of us on a bipartisan basis to address the acid rain crisis, back in the late 1980s, helping to enact a “cap-and-trade” system for sulfur dioxide much like the one so many of us now propose for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Because we acted then, we achieved our goals far faster than we expected, and at roughly one-fourth of the estimated costs. You can’t fully assess the savings achievable by harnessing the innovative genius of the American system until you try.

And here’s the thing we absolutely must remember in discussing the costs and benefits of immediate action on climate change: the benefits will go far beyond an abatement of climate change, or even the vast profits our businesses can secure in clean energy markets. Because our dependence of fossil fuels is so damaging in so many ways, the benefits of reducing that dependence will include the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who won’t die from preventable cancers or respiratory ailments; they will include a vast enhancement of our ability to keep our rivers and lakes clean, our air breathable, our habitats intact, our wild spaces pristine, and our land uncontaminated and hospitable to life.

We won’t achieve those benefits unless we act now, in Washington. We won’t get to that exciting future of hydrogen cars and alternative energy sources and conservation technologies that Newt Gingrich talks about by commissioning new studies or sitting on our hands while we wait for the invisible hand of the marketplace to take care of it all. And you can’t fight carbon caps and better auto efficiency standards or international climate change diplomacy and mocking or demonizing visionaries like Al Gore and still claim to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. And you can’t defend the status quo, as represented by the Bush Administration’s endless stalling and excuse-making on climate change, and at the same time ask for the right to shape the future.

It appears that Newt raised some eyebrows in agreeing with Kerry on some points. However, he’s still got a long way to go, as Kerry pointed out during the debate. Kerry pointed out that Gingrich’s model to get the federal government to pay incentives is another example of Republican big government. Kerry believes that regulation, caps on greenhouse gas emissions and carbon trading are the more viable solutions.

Blue Climate has a concise review of the debate here. The blog at JohnKerry.com has more on the debate: here and here.

UPDATE: The video of the Kerry – Gingrich debate is available here.

5 Responses to “Kerry and Gingrich Face Off on Climate Change”

  1. Seems to me government has already given many of these businesses enough tax breaks, contracts, naval support for shipping lanes, etc. for them to have done more research, development and implementation of ecologically better practices. Sadly, some of them actually went to Madison Ave and got a lot of Americans to buy vehicles with very poor gas mileage – for decades.

    I am especially reminded of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Being as how my spouse had been in charge of hazardous waste for the Alaska Dept of Environmental Conservation from ’80 to ’83, and was self employed and worked the spill himself, I distinctly remember how disgusted he was. First, he left the oil loading port at the end of the pipeline with all the spill response equipment located in one place and an annual field exercize to keep them up on what to do, how, when, etc. By ’89, the equipment had been scattered to different locations (and not all of it could be found), there hadn’t been a field exercize in years. The spill response was an industry version of Katrina – in the wild.

    The other kicker was when Exxon started advertising that they had completed putting double hulls on their tankers. Per EPA regs, they were supposed to have done that by ’84, five years before Bligh Reef made the world map. The Valdez was single hulled.

    Finally, as a lot of folks have noted recently, capitalism does not always generate that invisisble hand of prosperity and utopia. China has gone to capitalism with very little government regulation. Their cities are having major air pollution problems, water and waterways are endangered, etc. The USSR was, and Russia is, just as bad. They just had the advantage of the old “The solution to pollution is dilution” approach. That only works when the population concentration is low and mostly away from the mines, refineries, etc.

    Well, the question is how long we are going to be playing Russian Roulette on this.

  2. I agree with Ginny the government aka our tax paying dollars have given business more than enough damn breaks.

    I saw where Dana Milbank tries to say that Gingrich surprised JK by being conciliatory and agreeable and JK had to throw away his remarks.

    Personally I didn’t see that from what I saw of the debate.

    I’m no fan of Newtie’s but he was a ardent supporter of the endangered species act and if JK was caught off guard somebody should have made him aware of newt is no Inhofe in the environment area.

    Personally I think nasty newt will be back on the scene soon enough and lobbing arrows at JK for other stuff (Iraq)

    Inhofe should be ashamed of himself for not allowing the global warming concert on the mall. But the bush acolytes have no shame so he’s probably pretty please with himself.

  3. I don’t agree that business has enough tax breaks for products to combat global warming. Government must force the issue because business will not do anything unless forced to.
    Does anyone think the auto industry willingly boosted mileage ratings on their cars or did CAFTA have something to do with it?
    But business is run on the idea of risk aversion and they will not invest the needed money without tax incentives.
    too me, they are a cheap way to prime the spigot. Clinton did this to get the economy going by issuing investment tax credits.
    This got the economy going and gave us the IT explosion.

  4. meant the CAFE standards…

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