Bob Inglis is going to be late. The former Republican representative from South Carolina is driving his car while doing a phone interview with Corporate Knights, on his way to a talk with student leaders in North Carolina. In the middle of the call he misses a highway exit.
Sorry about that, Bob.
Inglis is busy these days, forcing him to multitask when and where he can. A congressman for 12 of the last 20 years, he was dumped from office in 2010 because of his support for meaningful action on climate change – a death wish for any Republican trying to get elected during tough economic times, let alone in a southern state where anti-science views seem to help politicians win votes. But instead of being silenced, Inglis decided to pump up the volume on his climate message.
In July 2012 he founded and launched the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a grassroots organization that believes America faces big risks in a changing climate and that conservative energy policy – based on the principles of free enterprise and limited government, both proposed and supported by Republicans – is what’s needed to mitigate those risks.
Is the message being heard? There are signs. Coral Davenport, a correspondent for the weekly newsmagazine National Journal, which is targeted at Washington insiders, wrote in May that a “deep internal conflict” within the GOP is brewing. “A concerted push has begun within the party – in conservative think tanks and grassroots groups, and even in backroom, off-the-record conversations on Capital Hill – to persuade Republicans to acknowledge and address climate change in their own terms.”
With global atmospheric carbon concentrations now above the 400 parts-per-million mark – an unfortunate milestone reached in May – it’s about time. Traditionally conservative international bodies are beginning to worry. The International Energy Agency, World Bank and European Investment Bank have all issued stern warnings, and the latter two have committed to stop investments in coal power. There’s a mass movement growing to get cities, universities and churches to divest from fossil fuels. U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has been forced to place strict emissions on existing coal-fired power plants in the face of Republican resistance to carbon pricing.
Yet the Republican-controlled House of Representatives continues efforts to gut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy spending on initiatives that support clean energy, including the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy.
Inglis, while still congressman, took a risk in May 2009 by tabling his Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act, which would have required carbon polluters to pay a rising carbon tax over 30 years while payroll taxes were lowered. It fell with a thud.
Timing is everything.
Below are excerpts from Inglis’ drive-by interview with Corporate Knights. On the topic of timing, Inglis assured us that he did make it for his student talk. “After a stop to buy bubbles for my negative externality illustration, I walked into the auditorium as the clock was striking 10 a.m. – my speaking time!”
CK: When did it occur to you that climate change was a serious problem that has to be tackled with some urgency?
INGLIS: When I was in Congress for my first six years – between 1993 and 1999 – I thought this was all in Al Gore’s imagination. Total nonsense. And this was ignorance on my part. I didn’t know anything about it. All I knew is Al Gore was for it so I was against it.
CK: So what caused the shift in thinking?
INGLIS: Our eldest, our son Robert, was voting for the first time when I ran again in 2004. He came to me and said, “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’ve got to clean up your act on the environment.” A lot of folks, particularly on radio, told me that listening to my kids was my first mistake. They should be listening to you; not you listening to them, I was told. But I’m the father trying to be like my son. He’s good looking. Smart. Funny. I’m trying to grow up to be like Robert. So that had an impact on me. Also, when I got back to Congress I got on the science committee. I went to Antarctica (in 2006) and saw the evidence in the ice core drillings – CO2 levels that coincide with the industrial revolution. That made sense to me. On another trip to Antarctica, in a stopover at the Great Barrier Reef, I saw the effects of coral bleaching. Those events made it so that I decided to act on energy and climate.
CK: In 2009 you introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act, but it didn’t get any traction with Congress, or voters for that matter. Why not?
INGLIS: Note to self – it’s probably not a good idea to talk about that (a carbon tax) in a great recession. What happened is my constituents said to me, “We’re worried about this month’s paycheck. It sounds like you’re worried about something decades away.” So they said get out of here. They booted me out. I knew we were running a great risk the whole time, but I guess I was hoping the moment would come when people would realize the value of solutions over scapegoats. That moment did not come during the 2010 race, but I think it’s going to come. Eventually, our country will return to looking for people who have solutions, rather than people who hunt for scapegoats.
CK: Forced to generalize, how would you describe the Republican position on the issue of climate change?
INGLIS: There are a lot of Republicans – elected Republicans – who reflect the majority of Republicans in the electorate who want a solution to climate change. But the most animated voices are the ones that are able to say “It’s not so,” because they don’t want it to be so. George Mason University had a recent poll with some interesting results. Only 35 per cent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents agree with the party platform on climate change. Some would say, rightly, that there’s no way anyone would know what the Republican platform says about anything. But do you think those people surveyed might have confused this (platform) for Al Gore? Not likely.
CK: Do you see that position shifting or does it remain firmly entrenched?
INGLIS: I think it is. I hope so. I don’t know so. As the great recession wears off, we will look back and say of this popular rejectionism that it was the vibe of the times. We’re disappointed. We’re upset. We’re angry. It’s rejectionist. It rejects the science; the idea we can come together and take action together. It comes down to not having trust. Eventually that will wear off, and it correlates directly with the pain from the great recession. As the pain subsides that populist rejection will subside, and we’ll get back to solutions.
CK: What in your mind is the solution?
INGLIS: It’s a true cost comparison between competing fuels, where all subsidies are removed and all costs are in. That combination of things would enable the free enterprise system to deliver solutions – innovations that would change the energy mix and clean up the air and improve national security. I’m talking an upstream application of a carbon tax. We would pay out that tax with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in existing taxes. So it’s revenue-neutral, but it would also be government-shrinking. It would give rise to appealing some cumbersome regulations. That’s our plan.
CK: What’s your view of the regulatory path that President Obama is taking?
INGLIS: We think the regulatory approach is precisely the worst way to act. Because, what will happen there is they’ll issue the regulations and they’ll immediately be sued. There will be a slog through domestic courts. Then, at the end of it, if they’re successful, we will impose a cost on carbon in America but nowhere else. We’ll be double losers. We’ll lose employment because production lines will move to places that don’t price carbon, and we will increase global emissions. The movement will be to more energy-intensive locations – China and India, for example. I’d say it would be a triple loser because of the complexity of (complying with) those regulations. It’s the least desirable path. The alternative path, which is completely game changing, is to price carbon here by a tax that is border-adjustable. That is, it’s removed on exports and applied on imports. We think that can be done in a WTO (World Trade Organization)-compliant kind of way. It would be protested by China and India. But if we can get through it, at the end of it China and India would enact a similar price on carbon in their own economies. The result is that you don’t get an increase in global emissions or have the exporting of manufacturing capacity out of the United States. But it has to be revenue-neutral.
CK: What are your thoughts on China moving to price carbon, starting with cap-and-trade?
INGLIS: That, I think, is a very positive sign. I want to trust them, to trust that they have the same self need because even repressive communist dictators have a child that wants to go out and play soccer and not choke on pollution.
CK: Why is it important for conservatives to step up to the challenge of carbon pricing?
INGLIS: The only thing keeping us from a disastrous regulatory approach here is the creativity of conservatives who would come forward with something that would be the alternative that works. That’s what we must deliver. The country is waiting for us. The world is waiting for us conservatives to deliver this thing. We have failed to do that this far on energy and climate. We just want to stick with climate denial.