WASHINGTON – The global warming debate has been heating up in Washington lately, but reached new heights Tuesday when partisan heavies Sen. John Kerry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went head-to-head over the issue on Capitol Hill.
What might have been a surprise to some people watching the debate was that Kerry and Gingrich were cordial, not at each other's throats, and actually agreed — and said so several times — on the key point at hand: that climate change is a problem and something needs to be done.
In their opening statements, both men made reference to the prize-fight billing, but downplayed any expectations of animosity.
"I'm sure we're going to have an interesting dialogue about this," Gingrich said with a grin during his opening remarks.
Part of what made the debate enticing was the political backdrop: Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and remains a Bush administration critic; and Gingrich led the conservative revolution that swept Congress in 1994 and might be positioning himself as a candidate for the presidency in 2008.
But how they said they would tackle the global warming problem is where they differed.
Talking from a podium in the Russell Senate Office Building, Gingrich argued that a program including cash prizes, targeted tax cuts and other economic incentives will lure business entrepreneurs to develop technology to tackle the climate problem. He said that type of program would be faster than a bureaucratic government program because it will avoid the rush of special interests to avoid regulation and costly litigation.
Kerry said he favors government regulation first because markets, while they work, cannot act fast enough to tackle the looming problem he pointed to frequently: reaching the "tipping point" level of greenhouse gases of 450 parts per million. Scientists believe that level of greenhouse gases would seriously hurt worldwide economies. Kerry also advocated a so-called cap-and-trade program that would set economy-wide carbon emission limits.
Gingrich began first with a concession to his opponent. Holding the new book by Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Gingrich said, "This is a very good book. As a clearly right-wing reader, I would commend the book" as one that shows examples of local leadership on environmental issues.
"I would agree with about 60 percent of this book," he added.
Kerry of Massachusetts also took a friendly stance in his opening remarks before turning to the debate, sponsored by New York University's John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress
"While I don't have his book in hand, and I don't know what it's about, I've always enjoyed every dialogue he and I have ever had," Kerry said, calling the global-warming face-off the "environmental version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates."
Gingrich said he will be pushing for a way to deal with climate change that is not heavy on regulation — a point on which he criticized Kerry's plan.
"I want to suggest that we need a new science- and technology-based, entrepreneurial, market-oriented and locally led environmentalism," Gingrich said.
Gingrich raised some discrepancies among the science that has led to the current data on climate change, but when asked pointedly about science doubters, like Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., Gingrich strongly held the case that climate change is a problem.
"What would you say to Sen. Inhofe and others in the Senate who are resisting even science? What's your message to them here today?" Kerry asked.
"My message, I think is that the evidence is sufficient that we should move towards the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading in the atmosphere —"
"And do it urgently, now?" Kerry interrupted.
"Urgently, yes," Gingrich said.
But Gingrich also said that up to now, conservatives have been slow to loathe with environmental policy because, he said, "For most of the last 30 years, the environment has a been a powerful emotional tool for bigger government and higher taxes. And therefore if you're a conservative, if you hear these arguments, you know what's coming next."
"So even though it might be the right thing to do, you might end up fighting it because you don't want the bigger government and the higher taxes."
Gingrich said there must be a "green conservatism."
"There has to be a willingness to stand up and say, alright, here's the right way to solve these as seen by our values system," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said there needs to be more money available in the form of incentives to find better ways of bringing forward new technology.
"Regulation and litigation are the least effective" ways to get change.
Kerry said he's not against a market-based approach, but he believes that the nation's corporations and international governments will not take more environmentally friendly measures without U.S. government response.
"Ladies and gentleman, this is a moral obligation. It's one in which we can money. That's what those business leaders realize. We need to show the leadership. It's the only way to get China and India to participate, and that's why you have to take this with a global pricing of carbon — certainly economy wide in the United States to start with — and we need to offer the leadership."
Kerry argued that Gingrich's position doesn't allow for fast enough action.
"He takes the consensus of the U.N. report, but then essentially says, what we need to do is encourage the marketplace to go out and respond, and to unleash science, to unleash technology," Kerry said.
He contended that Gingrich's solution won't deal with "the crises that we have to respond to immediately, quickly," and added that Gingrich's stance is "like saying, 'Barry Bonds, go investigate steroids.' "
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed debate sponsors as the New York University Robert Wagner School of Public Service, Brookings Institution and the Cato Institute. These groups did not sponsor the debate, as has been corrected in the text above.