Conservatism and Climate Change: An Interview with Bob Inglis
Bob Inglis is a former congressman for South Carolina and attorney. He served in Congress from 1993-1999, and again from 2005-2011. Describing himself as an “energy optimist and climate realist”, Inglis founded RepublicEn.org; a platform for conservatives and libertarians combating climate change. Through rhetoric and policies that are true to conservative principles, Inglis seeks to engage communities that have historically felt alienated from the climate action movement.
Mikaela: How did you get involved in climate action?
Bob: I ran for Congress in 1992, after having never run for office before. I served for six years and believed that climate change was nonsense. I didn’t know anything about it, except Al Gore was for it. I represented a very red district (4th District) in a very red state (South Carolina). After six years, a self-imposed term limit, and an unsuccessful run for the Senate I returned to my work as an attorney. I ran for again in 2004. My son came to me, the eldest of our five children. He was voting for the first time, and he said to me “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’ve got to clean up your act on the environment”. This was the first of a three-step metamorphosis for me.
The second step was going to Antarctica with the science committee and seeing the evidence in the ice core drilling practices. And the third step was another science committee trip, where they stopped over the Great Barrier Reef. I snorkeled with an Australian climate scientist. As he was showing me the glories of the reef, I could tell he shared my worldview; he was worshiping God in what he was showing me. He wasn’t worshiping the creation (the reef); he was worshiping the creator. After, we had a chance to talk. He told me about conservation changes he made in his life to love God and love people. He rides his bike to work, goes without air conditioning as much as possible, and he avoids using an electric dryer; all out of love for the people who come after us. So I decided I wanted to be like him.
Mikaela: After this transformative experience, what actions did you take?
Bob: I came home and introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” in 2009. That was a revenue-neutral, border adjustment carbon tax. My timing wasn’t good politically; it was the great recession in the reddest state in the nation. So that got me tossed out of Congress in a Republican primary in 2010. Ever since then I’ve been on the road, trying to convince conservatives to enter the competition of ideas, and step forward with free-enterprise solutions to climate change. I also founded RepublicEn.
Mikaela: Can you tell us about the RepublicEn as a platform, and its goals?
Bob: RepublicEN is a group of conservatives, reaching conservatives on climate change. We believe that there's an answer in free-enterprise. If we fix the economics, the free-enterprise system could deliver innovation rapidly. What I know from wonderful times on the science committee, is that there are lots of ideas about how to produce and store energy. The problem is that they are not economic compared to fossil fuels. If you can pollute small particulates and CO2 into the sky without any accountability, you can beat your competitors all day long. And so, we believe that there’s a very solid conservative answer, which is to internalize the negative externalities associated with the burning of fossil fuels.
Mikaela: There is a widespread misconception that conservatives and libertarians are disinterested in environmental issues. Why do you think this belief exists?
Bob: In the case of climate change, the conflict has been culturally-marked. Since the great recession, expressing concern about climate change has been seen as outing oneself as a closet Democrat or liberal. And RepublicEN.org, we seek to create a safe space where we say, that’s just not true. It doesn’t make you a liberal to be concerned about climate change; in fact, it makes you a conservative. Because the most unconservative thing to do is to proceed blindly in the face of risk. Risks about deficits, debt, financing, generous threats, and risk of climate change. They’re all the same sort of thing, that should engender a conservative response.
Climate change got culturally-marked is because quite often the climate conversation is presented in the language of progressivism. It’s paternalistic, and being “good” and righteous about the use of resources. It comes also with an apocalyptic vision of “the end is upon us”. Conservatives don’t talk in those terms; Conservatives think about more energy, more mobility, more freedom. We think we can achieve that through these innovations of the future. We discuss that through the language of conservatism, not the language of progressivism. And we don’t talk about apocalyptic visions, we say it’s a risk, let’s move to reduce that risk.
Mikaela: How can energy and environmental policies be structured in a way that is true to conservative principles?
Bob: Watch this clip of Dr. Milton Friedman on the Phil Donahue Show in the 1980s. Phil Donahue, a liberal talk show hosts, asks the conservative Friedman about pollution. He asks “Dr. Freedman, if you don’t want to regulate it, what do you do?” And Friedman responds, “you tax it.”. He goes on to explain this concept of internalizing negative externalities. Conservatives know that you’re supposed to bow to the mention of Milton Friedman’s name; he’s one of the patron saints of conservatism. The populist nationalist doesn’t know or care who Milton Friedman was. But from actual conservatives, left in the GOP, Dr. Friedman’s words resonate. So that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to show that there are people with significant conservative credentials, that there’s an answer to climate change. Internalizing negative externalities. And that makes you a rock-solid conservative. It does not make you a liberal.
Mikaela: How can people across the political spectrum collaborate to address climate change?
Bob: I think it will take a lot of grace, forgiveness, and understanding. All those things are in short supply right now in the political process, so I realize I’m asking a lot. People like me need grace from those who have all along realized that there’s a need for climate action. My first six years in congress I just dismissed it. We need to give grace to people who aren’t persuaded about the goodness of the free-enterprise system but nevertheless realize the importance of getting conservatives in on the conversation. What that requires is looking for answers that resonate with those who believe in free enterprise. And we need further grace for those who have been in the despair camp, to help them realize that there is hope in collaboration with those on the left. Also, for those on the right, it’s realizing the power of their own ideas. Internalizing negative externalities, and letting the free-enterprise system deliver faster than government mandates, fickle tax incentives, and regulations could ever imagine. Venture on your beliefs. Accept the grace of realizing we conservatives should not worry about being cut off from our tribe. Our tribe believes in reasonable risk avoidance.
Mikaela: What can be done to help engage the public with climate change and other environmental challenges?
Bob: We’ve got to go to them with credible messengers and affirm them. Especially conservatives because so far what conservatives have heard is that they’re the dumb kid in the class. They’re the last ones to “get it”. That’s not a very effective presentation. We go to conservatives and say, we like you, and you have good ideas. The reason you’ve been absent so far in this conversation, is because you haven’t heard it in your own language. And we’re here to give it to you in high-octane conservativism. We’re going to cite people like Milton Friedman. We’re going to talk about internalizing negative externalities. We’re going to discuss border adjustments. And we’re going to talk about revenue-neutrality, so pricing carbon dioxide with a carbon tax. We’re going to return all that money to the people, through tax cuts. Or, dividends on the carbon tax that bring revenue back to the people. And when we present climate change that way, people can enter the conversation and feel like they’re being loyal to their conservative tribe.
I think MIT has a wonderful reputation for inventing the technologies that we need as a nation. And that’s really helpful because it’s not just Missouri that lives in the “show me” state, all of us live in a “show me” state. We want to see it, and we want to believe it can be done. Being able to display this technology will increase the sense of the efficacy of climate action. We know from polling data, that this increases people’s willingness to engage on a topic. If we apply ourselves and use the best of our abilities, then we can solve this. And that will cause people to engage, rather than shrinking in science denial.