How A Former Tea Party Congressman Learned To Love Al Gore

CREDIT: Ari Phillips

Former Congressman Roscoe Bartlett holding his pocket Constitution.

Former Republican Congressman and Tea Party Caucus member Roscoe Bartlett, who served Maryland’s 6th district for 20 years until earlier this year, is not someone you would expect to find advocating action on climate change. But Bartlett, who spends the bulk of his time now updating his plot of land in West Virginia to meet his off-the-grid lifestyle, sees the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy as necessary and arguing about it unnecessary.

“Obviously fossil fuels are finite,” Bartlett, 87, said during an interview in his Washington, D.C. office. “Our leadership doesn’t seem to understand that.”

Bartlett has a white beard and receding hairline that comes to a wispy peak. He wears thick, black-framed glasses and has a slightly goofy, easy-going nature. He carries a U.S. Constitution in his pocket and says he is most proud of how well he served his constituency during his time in Congress. However, it is his strong views on the vulnerability of the electric grid and importance of a self-sufficient, or even survivalist, lifestyle that may prove to be how he is best remembered.

A description of a solar panel installation he’s adding to a new residence on his compound — where he provides his own food, water and electricity — led into a larger discourse on what would happen if the U.S. suffered a major electromagnetic pulse either from an enemy attack or natural occurrence, a topic he was known for harping on in Congress. He advocates stocking food in case of emergency and notes Switzerland as a model country because it has a shelter for every one of its citizens.

“After Katrina essentially every one of those people became wards of the state,” Roscoe said. “They had no food or electricity and it took a while for the state to get there. I think that to the extent that people can be more self-reliant and self-sufficient that our country is stronger.”

The high value he places on self-sufficiency extends directly into Roscoe’s views on energy, environment, and climate change, where he believes the transition away from fossil fuels to alternative energy is a critical one for the future of the country. As he sees it, there are three groups with a common cause in the debate over fossil fuels and they are wasting time arguing unnecessarily with one another.

First are the “climate-change-global-warming-Al-Gore” types that maintain drastic greenhouse gas reductions are necessary in order to prevent human-caused climate change and all the associated negative impacts.

Second is the group that believes fossil fuels are finite and that we need to move to alternatives before it’s too late and the transition becomes more costly and painful. And third is the group that is concerned with national security and the fact that being a huge importer of oil puts America at the mercy of oil-producing countries.

“I don’t care if Al Gore is dead wrong,” Bartlett said. “There are two other very good reasons for doing the things he wants to do. Therefore we need to move to alternatives. I’d like to lock arms with the climate activists and march ahead.”

Bartlett effortlessly dodges that question about his belief in climate change with the skill of a seasoned politician, and sticks to certain talking points in the same natural manner.

“So there are people on the right who are stupidly bashing Al Gore and his people who want do to exactly the same thing they want done,” Bartlett said. “When they ought not to continue to say, ‘Gee what a bunch of idiots you are,’ but rather, ‘Thank you for your interest in wanting to move away from fossil fuels because they are finite and we have a national security problem.’ I mean why would you want to hurt yourself?”

Bartlett believes that even though we’re in an era of increasing domestic oil and gas production — in which exporting fossil fuels is now a reality — that the situation is temporary and by the end of the century, they will not be available in any meaningful quantities.

“So it’s pretty selfish to say, ‘Well there’s oil for me but screw my kids and grandkids,’” Bartlett said. “We’re getting a little more oil now, but in terms of the big picture it’s close to a drop in the bucket.”

In 2005, Bartlett helped establish the Congressional Peak Oil Caucus and he has argued that federal revenues from offshore oil and gas production should be invested in developing renewable energies. He is a big advocate of nuclear power, especially the idea of small modular nuclear reactors.

Bartlett has a Ph.D. in physiology, the scientific study of function in living systems, and worked for the Navy Applied Physics lab, amongst other places, before being elected to Congress. He eventually accrued 19 patents, some of which led to the invention of closed-circuit rebreathers still used today by special forces and firefighters.

After a wide-ranging discussion covering the eighth wonder of the world (the Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System), how our civilization could end abruptly like the Mayans, and how the little enzymes in genetically modified food are probably not harmful but worth labeling, Bartlett summed up his views on energy production with a quick anecdote.

“I’ve been to the South Pole twice,” he said. “The wind blows incessantly there and the sun shines without a cloud in the sky for six months a year. Guess how they produce energy? They haul it in on a Twin Otter aircraft. I mean, you can really get stuck in a rut doing dumb things just because they’re the same things you did yesterday. Maybe it was alright yesterday, but today it’s pretty dumb, or it was OK for that situation but really dumb for this one.”

When asked about the role government should play in catalyzing this transition from yesterday’s fossil fuels to tomorrow’s alternatives, Bartlett said the best thing the government can do it be honest. He said you don’t need to bribe people or punish people; if they know what the right thing to do is then they’ll probably do it.

This seemed oddly optimistic and trusting after all the occasions he’d had to call people stupid throughout the interview, but otherwise not surprising considering his belief in a small government and alignment with far-right groups such as the Tea Party that are highly skeptical of government intervention.

And it fit nicely into the context of the room we sat in just down the hall from his main office: the Jefferson Room.

“I’m a Jeffersonian,” Bartlett said, a photo of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial hanging on the wall above his head. “We’re in his room and he said, ‘The government that governs best is the government that governs least.’ I think the primary function of government is education. Just the facts.”