Newt Gingrich, a political ally of President Donald Trump, offered two alternatives on Wednesday for dealing with the new administration on science, environment, and sustainability issues.
“You can hunker down and decide you want to be oppositionist and that you are going to hate everything and life will be terrible,” or you can dig in and work with the administration, said Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives.
“If you go in aggressive enough and articulate enough and have thought it through enough, you are going to shape large parts of this administration,” he said.
Science and Environment Conference
Gingrich spoke at the National Council for Science and the Environment’s (NCSE) annual conference in Arlington, Va. NCSE is a nonpartisan organization with a mission of connecting scientists to policy makers so that policy and decision-making reflect sound science.
The administration has yet to come up with plans for a lot of areas of government, Gingrich noted. “They know the general direction they want to go in. They don’t know how to do it. They have attitudes: They distrust bureaucracy in general, they distrust red tape, they hate regulations. But they don’t have a plan for any specific thing.”
“Nobody understands what Trumpism is, including Trump. It’s an intuition, it’s a general direction, it’s an attitude. It’s not a plan,” he said.
Administration Actions and Threats Affect Science
Since coming into office, the Trump administration has stirred controversy and angst within the scientific community with many of its actions and stated intentions, including restricting federal science agency communications with the public, instituting a temporary federal hiring freeze, threatening to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and scrutinizing studies and data by scientists at that agency.
Gingrich asked the audience, composed largely of environmental scientists, how many had some level of anxiety about the new administration. Most raised their hands.
Gingrich coauthored a manifesto in 1994, the Contract with America, that called for tax cuts, a line-item veto, and other measures. Republicans used it to gain control of Congress that year. Gingrich has a history of involvement with some science and environmental issues. He taught at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia, in Carrollton) where he helped to establish an interdisciplinary environmental studies program. In Congress, he played a key role in increasing the budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Later, he participated in a 2008 television commercial with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the need to do something about climate change.
Three Drivers, Three Zones
Gingrich in his presentation argued that the new administration has a focus on science, engineering, and technology. He pointed to Trump’s inaugural address, which calls for “unlock[ing] the mysteries of space” and “harness[ing] the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.”
“Part of your challenge here is for you to feed back to them and say, ‘Look, if you want to achieve these goals, this is the kind of investment that you have to make,’” he told the audience.
Gingrich said that modern civilization has its roots in scientific knowledge, engineering, and technology and that “without these three great drivers, we would just collapse overnight.”
However, he called for people to consider three “zones” for supporting those drivers: the for-profit sector, philanthropy, and government, noting that each zone has different strengths and weaknesses.
A Different Direction in Dealing with Climate Change
Gingrich said that “one of the real tragedies that totally distorted the debate over climate change was that it got tied into the solution in a way that if you accepted the first you had to accept the second. And I think that was profoundly wrong.”
He said that Trump will be “much more favorable to West Virginia coal than anybody in the Sierra Club can stand.”
“You can’t turn to an entire region and say, ‘Your way of life has to die because I have a theoretical model that in 40 years, things are going to be really terrible,’” Gingrich added.
However, he said, there can be measures that move toward sustainability that are compatible with the administration’s goals. He pointed to Tesla as an example and the increasing popularity of electric vehicles.
After his speech, Gingrich told Eos that Trump should balance America’s economic interests related to climate change. Gingrich added, though, “I’m very skeptical of the stuff that Obama agreed to” in dealing with climate change.
Responses to Gingrich
Former NSF director Rita Colwell, an NCSE board member who introduced Gingrich at the event, told Eos that she agrees with his advice that “we will have to be knowledgeable about how we get our arguments together and make the case for more science, engineering, and technology.”
Regarding climate change, “we don’t know what the president will do, but we have to make our case,” added Colwell, now a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park and Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Shifting Political Landscape
Gingrich was not the usual fare for an NCSE conference, and he acknowledged that at the beginning of his talk, saying, “I realize that, particularly with all of the changes of the last few days, that having a right-wing Republican show up [at this conference] is probably not what all of you have signed up for.”
When asked why Gingrich was invited to speak, NCSE provided Eos with a written statement referring to the “shifting political landscape” and the importance of “hearing all perspectives.” The statement noted that “Speaker Gingrich has been a strong supporter of funding for science, has published about environmental protection, and has important insights on the new Administration.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer