Bob Inglis: can one man restart our climate politics?

Scroll this


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.

[pullquote align=”left”]Inglis holds a viewpoint on climate that everyone can embrace: we’ve all got to be accountable.[/pullquote]

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.

[pullquote align=”right”]”…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.”[/pullquote]


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: