Bob Inglis: can one man restart our climate politics?


Bob Inglis (Photo: EEI)

Bob Inglis (Pho­to: EEI)

Pro­gress on cli­mate change in the U.S. is par­a­lyzed by the now-his­toric lev­el of polar­iza­tion between Repub­li­cans and Democ­rats, and by the way overt Repub­li­can opin­ion has moved to flat rejec­tion of the sci­ence. Amer­i­can paral­y­sis par­a­lyzes the world, because the U.S. is still the indis­pens­able lead­er in glob­al nego­ti­a­tions. Cur­rent­ly oth­er coun­tries are left wait­ing to hear what Pres­i­dent Oba­ma will direct the E.P.A. to do in absence of pro­gress in Con­gress.

In this con­text, Bob Inglis, for­mer Repub­li­can Con­gress­man with a 93% rat­ing from the Amer­i­can Con­ser­v­a­tive Union and 100% from the Chris­tian Coali­tion, cuts a remark­able fig­ure: he’s a con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cian who not only believes in cli­mate change, but offered a bill to address it. Inglis spoke at the New School con­fer­ence “Cli­mate Change Demands We Change. Why Aren’t We?” Daniel­la Penn reports:

For­mer South Car­oli­na Repub­li­can Con­gress­man Robert Inglis used to think that cli­mate change was “hooey.” That’s not sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing he rep­re­sent­ed the “red­dest dis­trict in the red­dest state in the union,” where “cli­mate change” is a dirty word guar­an­teed to sink your rat­ings. But vis­its to the Great Bar­rier Reef and melt­ing ice­caps in Antarc­tica spurred a “spir­i­tual awak­en­ing” in Inglis that changed his per­spec­tive and his pol­i­tics.

After win­ning elec­tion to a six­th term in Con­gress in 2008, Inglis draft­ed a bill as an alter­na­tive to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­pos­al for cap and trade. His bill called for a $15/ton car­bon tax that would climb over 30 years to $100/ton, and which would be off­set by equiv­a­lent cuts to our pay­roll tax­es. This mar­ket-based solu­tion to cli­mate change – address­ing an issue the very exis­tence of which is denied by the Tea Par­ty – also turned out to be deeply unpop­u­lar among his con­ser­v­a­tive con­stituents.

His home ter­ri­to­ry, South Carolina’s 4th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, is among the most con­ser­v­a­tive in the nation, but vot­ers were recep­tive to a dis­cus­sion of new ener­gy pol­i­cy in 2004, ’06, and ’08. Things changed when the bank­ing sys­tem col­lapsed in 2009, caus­ing a loss of faith in insti­tu­tions and the rise of the Tea Par­ty. Talk radio whipped up a wave of anger and dis­trust on top of the finan­cial cri­sis, and by Inglis’ account, this wave short­ed out any pro­gress on cli­mate change in Con­gress.

Inglis prompt­ly lost his 2010 Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry and his house seat with it, lead­ing to the issue Inglis has came to address at a pan­el in New York in April:

Why aren’t more con­ser­v­a­tives doing any­thing (includ­ing talk­ing) about cli­mate change?

One of the answers is about the kinds of solu­tions being offered. The sec­ond answer is about “what you learned in kinder­garten”: a lesson in how to talk to peo­ple of diverse (and adverse) opin­ions. (Inglis’ talk can be seen in full on the video at the bot­tom of this post.)

Inglis, despite believ­ing in the impor­tance of mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change, does not sup­port cap-and-trade poli­cies to lim­it car­bon emis­sions in firms. Why? Because cap and trade embod­ies the redis­tri­b­u­tion (to well-con­nect­ed firms), restric­tion and reg­u­la­tion of mar­kets in ways that are “anath­e­ma” to con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues. If lib­er­als are as com­mit­ted to curbing cli­mate change as they claim to be, says Inglis, they must be will­ing to com­pro­mise and find solu­tions that appeal to con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues.

Inglis holds a view­point on cli­mate that every­one can embrace: we’ve all got to be account­able.

Inglis sup­ports a rev­enue-neu­tral car­bon tax. He stip­u­lates that the­se tax increas­es must come with cor­re­spond­ing tax cuts. In con­ser­v­a­tive form, Inglis advo­cates shrink­ing the EPA and repeal­ing clean air reg­u­la­tions. For con­ser­v­a­tives, Inglis stressed, acknowl­edg­ing cli­mate change will not mean alter­ing fun­da­men­tal mar­ket beliefs. It will mean har­ness­ing con­ser­v­a­tive prin­ci­ples to solve chal­lenges through the inge­nu­ity and can-do spir­it of free enter­prise. This is what Inglis is try­ing to achieve through his work at the Ener­gy and Enter­prise Ini­tia­tive, a cam­paign launched in 2012 to sup­port pro­gress on ener­gy and cli­mate change pol­i­cy through con­ser­v­a­tive solu­tions like elim­i­nat­ing fuel sub­si­dies and rev­enue-neu­tral car­bon tax­ing.

See­ing the poten­tial in con­ser­v­a­tive approach­es is part of the larg­er shift that Inglis sees as nec­es­sary if any real pro­gress is to be made on car­bon pol­i­cy. The left must change the way they view con­ser­v­a­tives – from obsta­cle to “indis­pens­able part­ner.” After all, says Inglis, with­out con­ser­v­a­tives, the votes in Con­gress sim­ply aren’t there. 

The sec­ond step in get­ting con­ser­v­a­tives to coop­er­ate on cli­mate is sim­ple but cru­cial: it’s about chang­ing the rhetoric. The con­ver­sa­tion on cli­mate change has become increas­ing­ly polar­ized as con­ser­v­a­tives become entrenched on the wrong side of cli­mate issues and pro­gres­sives in turn promise sal­va­tion from immi­nent apoc­a­lypse. The hys­te­ria and the dis­trust – the “the­o­log­i­cal rigid­i­ty of the left”– must be over­come to allow for pro­duc­tive dia­logue.

Sus­pi­cious of the poor rat­ings on cli­mate and ener­gy issues for con­ser­v­a­tives in Con­gress, Inglis thinks that the­se reflect extreme cri­te­ria rather than an accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of con­ser­v­a­tive views held by many of his peers. He sug­gests that the left relax their stance and their rhetoric in order to allow for com­pro­mise. “We need to come togeth­er in a con­ver­sa­tion that every­body can be a part of,” says Inglis.

“…when you’re deal­ing with an exis­ten­tial threat like death or like cli­mate change, if you see it as we are all toast any­way, then denial is a pret­ty good way of cop­ing.”


In an ear­lier inter­view with PBS/Frontline, Inglis showed empa­thy for those who deny the real­i­ty of cli­mate change, explain­ing that “…when you’re deal­ing with an exis­ten­tial threat like death or like cli­mate change, if you see it as we are all toast any­way, then denial is a pret­ty good way of cop­ing.”

And there are oth­er psy­cho­log­i­cal fac­tors, accord­ing to Inglis: “Anoth­er one is there’s an assump­tion of tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress, that some­body is going to fix it, who­ev­er that some­body is.”

And more: quot­ing one of his team, he notes that “‘We all like change, just we don’t like to be changed.’ We want to be the change agent, but we sure­ly don’t want to be the one who gets changed by some­body else. We want to be in the driver’s seat on that.”

But dodg­ing the issue is not an answer, accord­ing to Inglis. Com­ment­ing on his approach to a rev­enue-neu­tral tax on car­bon, he explains: “You’ve got to be account­able. Behav­ior has con­se­quences, so attach the cost to some­thing so that the mar­ket can judge it.”

Here also are links to an op-ed Inglis wrote for the Miami Her­ald, and to an aston­ish­ing inter­view in the mid­dle seg­ment of an episode of This Amer­i­can Life, on NPR, which sug­gests that a vote for a car­bon tax even now might be pos­si­ble if it were closed bal­lot.

Inglis’ talk begins at 6:52 on the video below: