WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, presidential hopeful-turned-documentary film star Al Gore brought some Oscar glamour to Capitol Hill as he testified about the perils of unchecked global warming, an issue gaining traction with both lawmakers and the public.
On Tuesday, two other prominent politicians -- one a former presidential nominee, another toying with the idea of becoming one -- faced off before a packed house in an opulent Senate hearing room to discuss the same topic.
During their two-hour debate, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) agreed that climate change is a real concern that demands urgent action. Their disagreements came on the question of what to do next.
Gingrich called for tax breaks to promote greener technology and expressed faith that a free market could reduce greenhouse gases. "Rewarding entrepreneurship, investing in science and technology, reshaping the market with incentives are the fastest ways to get to change," he said.
But Kerry dismissed the notion that polluters would sufficiently reduce emissions on their own. Greater oversight is necessary, he said. "There is no single environmental crisis that has ever been met in the United States, or anywhere that I know of, voluntarily," he said. "The bottom line is that we've got to set a standard."
Backed by growing evidence of potentially dire consequences from a warmer planet, Democrats in Congress are attempting to refocus attention on the politically and economically contentious issue. Tuesday's debate was sponsored by the nonpartisan John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University.
Lionized by many conservatives for wresting congressional control from Democrats in 1994, Gingrich has been back in the spotlight in recent weeks, fueling speculation that he might jump into an already crowded race for the GOP presidential nod.
Kerry, who ran unsuccessfully against President Bush in 2004, is not seeking the 2008 nomination, a decision he announced after being criticized for saying -- in what he later described as a botched joke -- that if students didn't study hard, they would get "stuck in Iraq." Tuesday's event offered him a high-profile opportunity to flesh out his views on the environment -- the topic of "This Moment on Earth," a new book he wrote with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Gingrich, who has said he will not decide whether to run for president until September, has attracted public attention in a number of ways of late.
In a video on YouTube, Gingrich apologizes in English and Spanish for recently equating bilingual education with "the language of living in a ghetto." He has publicly acknowledged having an extramarital affair in 1998, even as he was criticizing President Clinton for similar behavior -- a confession that earned him praise from the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a leading Christian conservative. In a recent appearance on "Fox News Sunday," he even urged Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales to consider resigning.
Despite his history as a conservative standard-bearer -- his 1994 "Contract With America" played a crucial role in ending the Democrats' decades-long control of the House -- Gingrich has distanced himself from those on the right who are skeptical about climate change. His own book about the environment, "A Contract With the Earth," is due out in November.
"There is a consensus that for the last 100 years the planet's gotten somewhat warmer. The second consensus is that humans have contributed to that," he said.
At one point during the free-flowing debate, in which the moderator barely intervened, Kerry asked his opponent what his message would be to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Senate's most vocal critic of global warming, and others who doubt that the climate is changing.
"The evidence is sufficient that we should move toward the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere," Gingrich responded, noting that environmentalism is a touchy issue for conservatives.
"I think there has to be, if you will, a green conservatism. There has to be a willingness ... to have a dialogue about what's the most effective way to solve it rather than to get into a fight over whether or not to solve it."