Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of A Contract with the Earth

by Newt Gingrich and Terry L. Maple

(The Johns Hopkins University Press, 144 pages, $20.00, November 1, 2007)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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I am a scientist, and I vote. To put this review in context, I place myself in the moderate to progressive segment of American politics. But I never let my political views get in the way of interpreting what observation, experiment, and scientific analysis tell me about the world.

For instance, when I reviewed Chris Mooney's provocative The Republican War on Science (RWOS), my first reaction was skepticism. "Show me the evidence," I demanded of that book. In the end, Mooney's thorough research persuaded me that his thesis deserved serious consideration.

RWOS covered a broad range of topics, but the one of greatest concern to me was the political foot-dragging and outright denial of human-induced global warming, especially in the Republican controlled congress and the George W. Bush White House.

I often wrote in my blog that I would listen to any proposed political solution to the problem--liberal, conservative, or otherwise--as long as the discussion began with the best understanding of the science and considered a range of plausible scenarios. Thus I was heartened to learn of this new book by one of the United States leading conservative thinkers, Newt Gingrich, in collaboration with conservationist Terry Maple.

I assumed that I would disagree with Gingrich's proposed political approaches. But I also assumed that the book will make an important contribution to the debate on global warming. I was correct on both counts. A Contract With the Earth has the potential to move the debate away from whether global warming is occurring and whether human activities are causing it, and move toward issues where conservatives and liberals argue about how best to deal with the problem.

However, I am disappointed that it pussyfoots around the Right's nonsense about calling global warming a hoax and a liberal conspiracy. Gingrich frequently points fingers at the Left for their "doomsday scenarios." I disagree with that characterization, though I understand that a warning can be delivered too stridently, thereby turning off the people you hope to reach.

But if turning people away from the solution is a problem, then Gingrich needs to be equally critical of outright denialism on the Right. To deny and obfuscate is far more than simply to "disdain" environmental action, which is about as far as he goes in criticizing his own party. He may not have agreed with leading denier Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, but by remaining quiet he facilitated Inhofe's misuse of his Chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to block action on global warming. In this book, Gingrich is continuing to give Inhofe and his cronies a pass.

In other words, I don't doubt his sincerity about the need to act, and I don't question the value of conservative approaches to the solution. But Gingrich is clearly worried about his right flank in this book. Mainstream Republicans have known for some time that global warming is a problem and would welcome some courageous leadership from Gingrich. Instead, many of them will see this as opportunism by someone who wants to be president and thus can't afford to alienate the Right.

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of numerous science books for young readers.

For balance, we quote the publisher's description of the book:

Focusing the environmental debate on the principle of common commitment, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and eminent conservationist Terry Maple present A Contract with the Earth. Declaring a need for bipartisan environmentalism, they call for a new era of environmental stewardship, one with principles that they believe most Americans will share.

While acknowledging that liberals and conservatives do not see eye to eye on many issues, Gingrich and Maple argue successfully that environmental stewardship is a mainstream value that transcends partisan politics. Their thoughtful approaches to our environmental challenges are based on three main premises: environmental leadership is integral to America's role in the world, technologically savvy environmental entrepreneurs can and should be the cornerstone of environmental solutions, and cooperation and incentives must dramatically increase to achieve workable and broadly supported environmental solutions.

Gingrich and Maple believe that most people -- regardless of how they categorize themselves politically -- are weary of the legal and political conflict that prevent individuals and communities from realizing the benefits of environmental conservation. The foundation of the book -- a ten-point Contract with the Earth -- promotes ingenuity over rhetoric as the way forward.

We can, they conclude, work together to be more responsible stewards of the environment.