A conservative approach to fixing climate change

Former U.S. Congressman Bob Inglis will speak at Eichardt’s on Nov. 15

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

Bob Inglis is a rare human being.

He served as a Republican U.S. representative for South Carolina from 1993-1999 and again from 2005-2011. The American Conservative Union gave him a lifetime rating of 93.5% and he has earned endorsements from the National Rifle Association and the National Right to Life Committee. Inglis was also awarded the 2015 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award — for his work on climate change.

Bob Inglis. Courtesy photo.

In addition to his political credentials, Inglis is an advocate, urging fellow conservatives to stick with the facts and the science that climate change is caused by human activities and poses significant risks — a position held by approximately 97% of climate scientists.

After his time in Congress, Inglis founded republicEN.org, a coalition of conservatives, libertarians, and “energy optimists and climate realists” of diverse political opinion united in a mission to convince their colleagues that climate change is real, it is a threat and it requires action to be solved.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby has sponsored a visit to Sandpoint by Inglis to speak about his advocacy on Friday, Nov. 15. Inglis will meet with faith, business and civic leaders in a small-group format for dinner from 5:30-7 p.m. at Eichardt’s Pub with the intent to discuss how community leaders can promote reasonable climate action policies that are anchored in conservative values.

What follows is a conservation with Inglis, who gave the Reader a few moments of his time to answer some questions about his climate change work. Inglis’ answers have been lightly edited for space.

SANDPOINT READER: You’re a bit of an anomaly, Bob. You’re a conservative, former Republican member of Congress, you’ve been endorsed by the NRA and the National Right to Life Committee, but you also stress that climate change is real and should be solved. When did climate change first become an important issue for you personally?

BOB INGLIS: For my first six years [in Congress], I said that climate change was nonsense. I didn’t know anything about it except Al Gore was pushing it. I represented a very red district, so that was the end of the inquiry. I admit that was pretty ignorant … My second six years, I had the opportunity to run again in 2004 and it was a different aspect when I came back. Three things changed: first, the love of my son; second, a trip to Antarctica; the third, being inspired by the faith of the climate scientist Scott Heron.

When I was running again in ‘04, my son said to me, “Dad I’ll vote for you if you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.” His four sisters and mother agreed.

Step 2 was going to Antarctica with a science committee and seeing evidence of ice core drillings.

Step 3 was inspiration from Scott Heron, a climate scientist who has become a very dear friend. At the Great Barrier Reef on this congressional trip, he was showing us coral bleaching and I could tell that he and I shared a worldview before any words were spoken. I could see he was worshipping God and his creation. He told me about conservation changes he’s made in his life; to love God and love people. He rides his bike to work, uses air conditioning as little as possible, dries his clothes without an electric dryer. I got inspired. I wanted to be like Scott, loving God and loving people. It caused me to come home to introduce the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009. … The exciting thing was, the decade of “disastrous disputation,” as well call it at republicEN.org, seems to have come to a close. 

In early 2008, Newt Gingrich was on the couch with Nancy Pelosi in an ad, saying “We don’t agree on much, but we do agree climate change is real and we need to do something about it.” By the end of 2008, Newt had switched to, “We don’t know.” So did the rest of the Republican leadership. The intervening event was the Great Recession: The wheels were coming off in October of 2008 and the election of Barack Obama and the decision of Republicans to pin it all on him. That went on for a decade, but now the decade seems to be over, and the best marker is Kevin McCarthy’s recent comments to the Washington Examiner, saying that Republicans have to come around on climate change if we plan on winning any elections. 

When I got kicked out of Congress in 2010, I started down this road getting conservatives engaged on climate change. It was pretty lonely, but it’s really changed now. 

The difference between then and now? The economy is better, we’ve had more experience with climate change and there are more on the eco-right as a balance to the environmental left, and finally, the Republicans lost control of the House in 2018. There’s an awareness that says, “If you want the majority back you have to win suburban districts.” Suburban districts are not going to go along with climate change denial anymore.

I was pretty rare back then but now we’ve multiplied. I might have been an albino unicorn back then but now it’s more normal.

SPR: Why do you think the issue of climate change has become so politicized, especially by conservatives?

BI: I think it’s solution aversion. I’m not a psychiatrist or a scientist, I’m just a recovering politician. But what psychiatrists say is solution aversion is that condition where we don’t think we have a solution that fits with our values, therefore we doubt the existence of the problem. … What conservatives heard was this, “The UN with blue helmets on were going to consult with the United States EPA and they were going to regulate their every breath.” There’s nothing in that paragraph that’s attractive to conservatives. If that’s the solution, I don’t want to believe in climate change.

But they’re forgetting basic conservative principles. … They know that all this is about is internalizing negative externalities. Having all products bear their costs in a transparent and accountable marketplace will help you get innovations fast. It’s a free enterprise system, delivering innovation. When conservatives hear that they say, “Yeah, that’s right.”

The good news is, there are a lot of progressives who agree. I want conservatives to recognize the existence of the problem and to start to solve it.

SPR: At republicEN.org, you claim that many community leaders can promote reasonable climate action policies that are anchored in conservative values. Can you share some of those ideas with me?

BI: Sure. When we talk about a carbon tax, how could that possibly be attractive to conservatives? Yes, it’s a carbon tax, but it’s paired with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in existing taxes, or a dividend of all of that carbon tax revenue back to the taxpayers. So there’s no “grow the government” scheme. It’s a revenue neutral carbon tax. That’s pretty conservative.

The second thing: it’s also got to be border adjustable … which means, we would apply the carbon tax on goods coming from a country that doesn’t have the same carbon tax. China would challenge that in the World Trade Organization — they would say those are impermissible terms. We say they’d lose that case based on precedent, because you can tax stuff coming in based on content.

If the WTO upholds our carbon tax, then within 24 hours, China has the same price on CO2 because they’re paying on entry to, say, the Port of Seattle, a tax that’s going to Washington. If they had just collected that tax internal to China, that sheet of flat steel or whatever would come through with no adjustment, so the tax money would come through Beijing. Then the whole world is following, because you have the U.S. and China. 

The beauty for conservatives is there is no international agreement — just a bold move by the U.S. that says, “We’re ready to lead. We’re going to make it in your interest for the rest of the world to follow us.” It’s got to be, because all of these domestic-only proposals, like the Green New Deal or anything else that is American only, it doesn’t have this way of getting a border adjustment. It’s just moral signaling. Actually you go downhill if you do that … people that have carbon-intensive businesses will pick up and move to, say, China. Once they get there, not only do you lose the jobs, you lose the race to reduce emissions. You’ve got to figure out a way to get the world in on this thing. If not, it’s not worth doing.

If you’re in front of a conservative audience and they give you 10 minutes to explain that, then they’re head-nodding and agreeing. Then you show them a clip of Reagan’s adviser, Dr. Milton Friedman, the father of Chicago School of Economics who said, “You tax it of course.” When conservatives hear that explanation, they say, “Oh yeah, we have something to offer here, we don’t have to be silent.”

SPR: How does that idea fly in the face of so much “America First” rhetoric coming from the Trump administration and anti-global sentiments among today’s conservatives?

BI: I actually wrote a piece for Donald Trump. It was real clear science in English. It’s basically everything I’ve just said to you but I put it into Trump’s language, which I don’t like to use. I wanted to make the point that you could say, “America is going to act and China is going to pay for it.” The more diplomatic way is to have a revenue-neutral carbon tax. It is an America first approach. Not in a belligerent way, but the world needs America to lead on this. We are the indispensable nation and conservatives are the indispensable partners in the indispensable nation. 

If you’re a conservative and you’re interested in solving climate change, you’re the most important person on the planet.

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