01/07/2008 03:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Newt Gingrich and Republican Fears Over Global Warming

Newt Gingrich may have finally gotten it partly right, but on the biggest issue of our time he is totally wrong -- again. His partially right position is in encouraging his fellow Republicans to embrace the effort against global warming, a noble quest indeed. We should be appreciative of any such movement. But he then turns around and rejects the very measures that are necessary to tame that beast -- a limitation on carbon emissions, common sense efficiency standards that would radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and federal research and development on par with the original Apollo moon shot project.

The enormity of the challenge, the need to reduce our emissions by 80 percent in the next several decades, clearly does demand the creation and implementation of a suite of new technologies. The good news is that a whole host of new emerging technologies have the promise of being able to reduce emissions dramatically while growing our economy. Bracken Hendricks and I found a slew of brilliant Americans developing those technologies in the course of writing our book, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy. From the new solar thermal technology of the Ausra Company, to the cellulosic ethanol enzymes of the Mascoma company and the first cellulosic ethanol plant of the Range company, to the plug-in hybrid cars enabled by the lithium ion batteries from the A123 Battery Company, cutting edge technology is brewing across the country.

But Gingrich's phobia against any governmental action would strangle these nascent, and promising, technologies in their cribs. The simple fact is that as long as these new businesses have to compete against old, mature, fossil fuel industries they will be at a disadvantage because the old industries currently have the right to dump megatons of their waste product, global-warming gases, into the atmosphere in unlimited amounts at zero cost. The Gingrich vision of continuing to allow coal plants to spew an infinite amount of carbon dioxide into the air, without governmental limitation whatsoever, will not only doom the planet, it will seriously retard the infusion of investment capitol into the new clean energy technologies. A crystal clean solar thermal plant cannot compete with a dirty coal plant, which uses the giant loophole in our clean air laws to pollute our atmosphere willy nilly, to their hearts content.

The private sector is going to be responsible for the vast majority of the breakthroughs we need in the clean-energy revolution. But the market is dysfunctional right now because the costs imposed by dirty fossil fuels currently are not internalized by the industries causing massive damage to the environment, a massive dysfunction in the market. When that externality is repaired, clean energy companies will then be on a level playing field with old fossil fuels companies, and the tidal wave of investment that is ready to flow into these new technologies that is awaiting this governmental fix, will boost them to commercial application.

Gingrich's hypothesis, that the unfettered market will fix this problem by some magic wand, has been tested in the auto industry in the last three decades -- and found wanting. Look at how our failure to require fuel efficient cars has seriously wounded the domestic auto industry. When we've had vigorous Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency Standards in the late 1970s, mileage of our cars rose 60 percent. Since then, the standards were removed, and even though we have invented the Internet and mapped the human genome, the mileage of the cars produced by Detroit has actually gone down. That is a powerful statement that the Gingrich phobia against any governmental action anytime, anywhere, will fail miserably in this sphere.

We present a different vision. In that vision, Congress dramatically boosts Federal research and development funding, passes a cap and trade system, a renewable portfolio standard, improvements in auto efficiency standards, and efficiency standards in lighting. It finances these efforts with the payments made by polluting industries for their discharge permits and creates a large fund that can help homeowners and businesses to purchase advanced technology cars and energy efficient housing improvements. Under this plan, investment will flow into new industries, they will fulfill America's destiny of designing and building the best clean energy technology in the world, we will start selling it around the world, millions of jobs will be created and the planet will be saved. Under Gingrich's vision the Heritage Foundation will be happy, and none of the other events will come to pass.

So let's applaud Mr. Gingrich for helping our Republican friends get over their fear of failure that blinds them to the clear science of global warming. Now let's get on with the job of revolutionizing our clean-energy economy, a job that will entail helping Mr. Gingrich and his tribe get over their second phobia, the one preventing us from really winning this battle.