Can He Persuade the GOP to Fight Climate Change?
The lights are off in the Committee on Science, Space and Technology room — once the last stand for Bob Inglis. The conservative climate change believer had lost to a tea party challenger, and, on that day six years ago, he was indignant. In a televised hearing, Inglis said he was glad deniers would have their comments on the record for history to judge them accordingly, and promised that China would “eat our lunch in the next century” if America didn’t innovate around alternative fuels and global warming concerns.
It was a fiery indictment of scientific skepticism and government inaction. But today, there is no audience. The black leather chair from which he gave his solemn swan song sits empty, and the old Capitol Hill office he inherited from rising Colorado Sen. Mark Udall was handed over to an Indiana congressman who is now vice presidential nominee Mike Pence. The climate change debate seems to have hardly moved on, even if the lawmakers who survived Inglis have. “Oh, yeah, I miss it,” Inglis says. “Although, I will tell you, I’m very sad for the people who never lead while they are here.”
While Inglis was ousted from office, he’s since advanced his counter-party conservatism in other ways. In 2012, he founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, which promotes conservative solutions to energy and climate challenges. That program has scaled up to RepublicEn, a savvy online community that uses Facebook advertising and viral videos to reach young conservatives sympathetic to the cause. He was awarded the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation last year, and the border-adjustable carbon tax he’s championing has been praised by economists for marrying free-market principles with the goals of environmental activists, winning support from the disparate likes of former Vice President Al Gore and ex-Ronald Reagan aide Art Laffer. As Ted Lieu, a freshman House Democrat and co-author of an environmental carbon-pricing bill, laughs: “I tweeted he was my new American hero.”
Inglis looks economical with his sparse white hair, neat blue suit and sleek black glasses. He’s here in the nation’s capital again to make more converts, dropping quotes from St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Friedman as he goes. Inglis explains his back-of-the-envelope math: He needs 200 right-leaning activists in 25 Republican House districts (and 15 Senate seats that go with them) to pressure his former colleagues into voting on carbon pricing. “What that means is we need 5,000 people,” he says, and RepublicEn has more than 1,000 listed online. His organization, along with other “eco-right” groups like ConservAmerica, the R Street Institute and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, would form grassroots willpower through letters to legislators, public events and running interference on the airwaves that dominate conservative discussion. “When we get on the radio and sing just a couple bars of this, people start to hear it as a tune that they agree with — that we should have accountability and a level playing field, where all fuels are accountable for what they cost,” Inglis says.
Still, real traction for action from conservatives is nascent at best, and nonexistent at worst. Yes, 47 percent of conservatives now say the climate is changing, according to a survey released in April by Yale and Georgetown Universities, up 19 points since the 2014 midterms. However, in Gallup’s annual environmental poll less than two-fifths of Republicans said they felt like the change was man-made, complicating efforts by folks like Inglis to enact reforms. And once you start talking about hurting the economy for what appears to be little environmental gain, conservatives struggle to hum along, Inglis admits. “If we put into place all of their regulations, we will see the difference in the sea level be less than two widths of a human hair,” Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who sits on Inglis’ former committee, tells OZY, citing an Environmental Protection Agency report.
For his part, Inglis says such views miss the hidden costs of not taxing emissions. But can thousands of supporters really make a difference in a nation of millions of voters? Inglis is taking the message from colleges in Minnesota to Maryland and Kentucky, to name just a few states, and argues that an opportunity lies in the reimagining of the Republican Party should Donald Trump lose in November. “It can be one of the key planks of the platform to turn the Grumpy Old Party into the Great Opportunity Party,” Inglis says.
That slow transformation is one Inglis is familiar with. During his first six-year term representing South Carolina’s 4th District in the ’90s, he called climate change “hooey” and “Al Gore’s imagination.” He went into private law, came back in 2004 and emerged humbler — vowing to consider other viewpoints. Fact-finding trips to Antarctica along with his son’s urging led Inglis to propose a carbon-pricing plan in opposition to the Obama cap-and-trade program that he viewed dismally. It earned him a tea party challenger: Trey Gowdy, who has since become famous during the Benghazi investigations for leading the divisive partisanship tactics that Inglis opposes. Says Inglis: “I’m glad that I don’t have to do that, is all I’ve got to say.”