Bob Inglis is a self-described “recovering politician.” Once a staunch climate change denialist, the two-time Republican congressman and farmer from South Carolina reversed his position on the matter after a nudge from his children spurred him to visit the Antarctic in 2006 and examine the scientific evidence for himself. Despite the risk of alienating his conservative base in the “reddest district in the reddest state in America,” Inglis began to speak out about the need for policies that would meaningfully address climate change, going so far as to introduce a bill pushing for a carbon tax in 2009. The move, which he describes as a “heresy” against the conservative political orthodoxy of the time, would prove to be political suicide for Inglis. He quickly became a party outcast, and in June 2010, he lost his re-election bid to the US Congress by a landslide.
Inglis now directs RepublicEn, an advocacy group that encourages the political right to accept the reality of climate change and advocates free market innovations to address the challenges it poses. Last year he was bestowed the JFK Library’s Profile in Courage Award for his principled stance on climate change.
In a free-ranging conversation with Earth Island Journal, the soft-spoken Inglis discussed how he pins his hopes on young conservatives who are “tired of the Grumpy Old Party,” how progressives and conservatives can work together to tackle climate change, and why he believes he’s doing God’s work.
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
You were skeptical of climate change until you went to Antarctica and had what you’ve called in the past, “a spiritual epiphany.” Can you take us through what prompted you to go there and your moment of epiphany?
For the first six years I was in Congress I said that climate change was nonsense. I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew that Al Gore was for it. And being that I represented probably the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation, I just dismissed it. When I ran for Congress again in 2004, my son was voting for the first time. He’d just turned 18. So he came to me and said, “Dad I’ll vote for you but you gotta clean up your act on the environment.” So that was step one.
Step two was going to Antarctica with the congressional science committee, seeing the evidence in the ice core drillings. That was in ’06. Then in 2008, during another science committee trip, this one involving a stop at the Great Barrier Reef, I was snorkeling with an Aussie climate scientist, Scott Heron, who was showing me coral bleaching. And I could tell that Scott and I shared a worldview before any words were spoken. Saint Francis of Assisi said, Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary use words. Scott was preaching the gospel. I could see it in his eyes, I could hear it in his voice. He was worshiping God in creation.
Later we had a chance to talk and we found out that in fact we share a worldview and he told me about conservation changes he was making in his life in order to love God and love people, and I found that very inspiring.
So I came home and introduced the Raise Wages Cut Carbon Act of 2009, which is a revenue neutral, adjustable carbon tax. That was probably not a very good political idea. It didn’t go very well in that reddest district in the reddest state in the nation.
The timing wasn’t right for that, was it?
(Laughs) No it was not good timing.
And so you lost the 2010 election by a landslide, right?
Yes, Trey Gowdy got 71 percent of the vote and I got 29 percent.
How do you deal with being treated almost like a pariah within your own political community?
I just know that I'm on the right side of love and history, you know. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
You talk so strongly about how your spiritual life informs your work. But there seems to be this sense that in some ways religion, evangelical Christianity specifically, has been detrimental to getting people to accept climate change.
Of course, theological liberals who are also political liberals are clearly in favor of climate action, while typically theological conservatives who are also political conservatives have been opposed to action. That’s because they have not yet heard the case presented in their own language. They’ve heard a sort of Earth First! language – a language that makes it sound like humans are invasive species. That language is quite foreign to them.
If [the challenge of climate change] is presented as being about stewardship and care of creation and human responsibility, accountability – those kinds of concepts do resonate because that’s the language of theological conservatives.
Do you incorporate that kind of language in how you talk about climate change now?
We mostly speak about the economics of climate change at RepublicEN.org, but when the question comes up in the faith frame, I’m very happy to discuss it there because, you know, I share that faith and I’m happy to help other believers to see the imperative. Plus, there’s the dignity that comes from humans tending what’s left of Eden. It’s exciting to speak in those terms because I think it’s very meaningful to people who believe that there’s a God who reveals himself in creation itself.
The apostle Paul says in Romans I [the sixth book in the New Testament] that what may be known of God is clear from creation itself. People across the centuries who have been devoted to the advance of science have often been people of very deep faith who believed that they were seeing in the creation the order and the beauty of the creator.
Could you talk about your organization and what it seeks to do?
RepublicEn is an educational effort to show free enterprise solutions to climate change and to engage with conservatives on the question, Can free enterprise solve climate change? Of course, we think the answer is most assuredly, Yes.
The solution we think is pretty clear. It’s simply to eliminate all subsidies for all fuels, and attach all costs to all fuels. In a transparent marketplace, consumers in liberty and enlightened self-interest will drive innovation.
A particularly convenient way to do that is through an upstream application of a carbon tax that’s paired with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in existing income taxes and is applied to imports. The effect of that would be an economy-wide, worldwide, price on carbon dioxide that achieves the internalization of negative externalities associated with burning fossil fuels.
When you say to eliminate all subsidies to all fuel, does that “all” include subsidies on renewables too?
Yes, we would eliminate all of that. That means no more production tax credit for wind. It means no more solar tax incentive, no more electric car credits, no more under-market leases for the extraction of minerals on public lands. It means no more of the biggest subsidy of all, which is being able to dump into the trash dump in the sky without paying a tipping fee for the harm that’s gonna be caused by those emissions. And that we consider a huge subsidy. It really is the biggest subsidy of all of them. It dwarfs all the renewable credits and exemptions. That lack of accountability, of course, is what’s driving the problem.
So you are calling for a carbon tax instead of cap and trade, which I believe you are against?
Correct. A straight up carbon tax that is paired with a corresponding reduction in existing income tax. So there’d be no increase in the treasury, it would just be that we would be un-taxing some form of income and putting a tax on pollution.
Why do you think cap and trade isn’t the way to go even though it seems to be a popular option right now?
I think it’s hopelessly complicated and embarrassing in the free allocations to the well connected. It would have decimated American manufacturing and it would have led to a massive tax increase. For all those reasons I voted against it. It’s not the right way to fix the problem.
Apart from putting a tax on carbon and opening up the markets, is there any other thing that you think the US needs to do to really address climate change?
What you just described are the most powerful mitigation measures. In terms of adaptation there are a number of things that need to be happening. We have to prepare for the trouble that’s going to be ours based on the already locked-in climate change. There some things to be done like moving some assets or trying to keep the water out of low-lying places. But we are spending our attention at RepublicEN.org on accelerating the mitigation so that we can avoid the worst of the impacts.
How is your message being received among your target audience?
We do very well with young conservatives. They are looking for the birth of the Grand Opportunity Party. They are sort of tired of the Grumpy Old Party. And of course, a solution to climate change would be one of the key exciting changes as we switch into the Grand Opportunity Party. It’s very encouraging to speak with young people.
What about older Republicans? Why do you think it's been so difficult for your peer group to accept that humans are the key drivers of climate change?
I think it’s because it’s perceived as an attack on our way of life. Climate action is an admission of guilt, if you will. It’s an attack on a suburban lifestyle. I think that’s how it’s perceived. So what we need to do is help folks see that good things can come to all of us through this. We are going to have better, faster, cleaner, cheaper energy if we do this. The total cost of coal-fired electricity is tremendously expensive when you consider the health costs, the climate costs. And so if you put all that in the meter you realize that, Gee! We need something better than this.
So you are saying that it’s the framing of the whole issue as a problem rather than an opportunity that makes it difficult for conservatives to accept?
Yes, it’s surely that. It’s also that the conversation was started in precisely the worst way for American conservatives.
I mean, if you think about it, the climate conversation started with the United Nations talking to supposedly “godless scientists,” and then getting with government bureaucrats to devise a system for regulating it. I haven’t come across a single word yet that I’ve used in that description – United Nations, godless scientists, government bureaucrats – that conservatives could warm to.
If the subject had been first broached by the US Army, let’s say, it would have been a very different conversation. Or if the US Navy had said, Our docks are going to go underwater and it’s going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to elevate them, we’ll have real problems patrolling the Arctic Ocean if we have to do that, we are talking massive expansion of the Navy… If it had started there, then conservatives would have said, Hey this is our problem. We gotta fix it. But as it was, it seemed like Oh no, it’s the big government types. They are trying regulate things and it’s just not our conversation.
But it is a fact that the Army and Navy have been working to become more energy efficient…
It didn’t start there, of course, but it has gotten there. Interestingly enough, because the conversation has become so tied to the larger government conversation, there’s distrust of the Pentagon when they speak about climate change, which is very unfortunate.
In the five years that you’ve been doing this work, are you seeing any change in mindsets on this issue among the conservative old guard?
They are coming more and more onboard. When I was losing in 2010 it was necessary to say that you didn’t believe in climate change and no one else should either. You had to be antagonistically atheistic as to climate change. You just don’t believe.
But by 2014 when the economy was recovering, [the new refrain was] was I’m not a scientist, which is quite an agnostic position, which is an improvement from the atheistic position. The next and obvious development is going to be pretty clearly, Yes it’s real, let’s do something about it.
Last year you said that your “most positive scenario” for near-term action on climate was a Republican president in 2016 because it would set up a top-down push for Republican-led climate legislation. What’s your take on the same question, in light of the current Republican nominee for president?
Sadly, it’s not happening in this cycle. I think more likely what may be accomplished in the 2016 presidential race is Donald Trump may come to own climate rejectionism, and if he fails as badly as I think he’s going to fail, then he takes climate rejectionism with him, which would be very helpful.
How can political progressives, who currently own the conversation on climate change, engage with their fellowmen across the political divide? Where do they go wrong?
Most of all, people like me need an awful lot of grace and forgiveness from people who have long been involved in climate action. Hopefully it can start with a lot of grace, but it’s also helpful for people on the Left to have some healthy self-awareness of how their language suits them and their friends but doesn’t suit the people that are indispensable partners for action, which are conservatives in America.
We need to show conservatives that action on climate is consistent with their deeply held beliefs. So it’s probably better to support people of that tribe while they speak with their fellow tribal members rather than attempting to fake it. Sort of like, if I go to an orthodox Jewish foundation and say, Hey bros, I’m just like you! and they say, No, no, we can tell at the door that you aren’t. Now, you can come in here and say, I respect your faith though I’m quite different than you, and that’s an OK approach.
We are not all the same. We all do best when we understand our own limits and our ability to reach people who are different than we are. We can’t expect them to become like us. But we can, after building some trust, show them that we might be able to share an objective even if the rationale of our movement towards that objective is quite different. So say, for example, if a conservative is open to action mostly because they like the idea of cutting income taxes, well that’s fine, if, meanwhile, the progressives are getting what they wish, which is action on climate change.
So you are saying we need to work as allies, but we don’t need to convert each other?
Right. We just need to realize that at the end of the day people could be smiling for different reasons but we can all be smiling. What’s to not like about that?
You are getting a lot of praise and attention from the progressives because you are a staunch Republican who’s talking so strongly about climate change. Is that a good thing for you, given that you are trying to reach out to the conservative constituency?
Well, it’s always nice to get encouragement, but it’s essential for us to reach our target audience. So we try to spend our time and resources with our target audience. We don't accomplish much by speaking with progressive audiences because it’s preaching to the choir. We need to be with conservatives.
Have you made any lifestyle changes in the face of this realization?
You know all the little changes we all do – some better insulation of the house, setting the thermostat to be not be so hot, our eating habits are a little bit different – we have a great big garden and we do with less meat – and of course it’s amazing how little trash is hauled away from our house, the rest of it goes to recycling. So those are the kind of changes, but I really want to make more. Once we rebuild our barn I look forward to having solar installed on the barn. The house doesn’t work for solar because it’s too shaded. And now that we have got another one out to college, we are getting closer to getting an electric car. I might be able to afford one of those. We got one more [kid] in college and then that’s something I’m looking forward to.
You say your children were the ones who forced you to, “clean up your act on climate.” How do they view their dad now?
I think they are happy about how it’s all turned out. I think they are just a little bit surprised about how they are central to the whole thing.
Some people misunderstand what my son was saying when he turned 18. He wasn’t making a threat. He was going to vote for me no matter what. I mean it was not in his economic interest to vote against me, because we were mortgaging the farm [to pay for his college] for goodness sakes! But he was saying, Dad, I love you, and you can do better, so come on, get with it. And that was the challenge that I heard and it was also an affirmation that I heard from him that he’s going to love me no matter what, but he wanted me to be what I could be. And that’s pretty exciting when your kids want that for you. And I want that for them too. I think they might be sort of surprised at the power of their own voices.
You know, that’s the way it is. We are all more powerful than we think we are. If we just use our voices to speak the right words at the right time it can really change things. For my son, it was just a few words in the right way and I’m on a completely different course of life. And it’s pretty exciting.
Maureen Nandini Mitra is editor of Earth Island Journal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.