How a 'RepublicEN' takes on the right flank on climate
A former congressman's campaign to persuade his fellow Republicans to take climate action.
Hearing Bob Inglis is a bit like listening to a defector from the other side who, with noble purpose, is telling you how to best penetrate your enemy's defenses.
That's because Inglis, a six-term former Republican congressman from South Carolina, recognizes that when it comes to climate change and the threat it poses to our collective future, we are all on the same side, whether we know it or not. He also appreciates the fact that without some support from Republicans in Congress, this is little hope of the federal government getting anything substantial done on the matter.
That is why, after being voted out of office in 2010 for not being conservative enough on this issue, he founded a nonprofit called RepublicEN — the EN stands collectively for energy, enterprise and environment — with a bright red logo and the sole purpose of building a climate change platform that fellow conservatives and Republicans can support.
Speaking at a recent town hall-type event in Rochester, New York co-sponsored by the Rochester Chamber of Commerce and the Sierra Club (that alone is reason for hope), he begins by asking the audience, by show of hands, to declare their political leaning, their belief in climate change, their acknowledgment of humans’ role in it and their belief that it can be solved.
To those with the last hands remaining raised — self-identified Republicans who agree that all of the above is true — he emphatically proclaimed, "When it comes to climate change, you are the most important people in the world."
The story of his own conversion began with the fact that during his first six years in office, the only thing he knew about climate change was that Al Gore was for it. At that point, he said, "That was all I needed to know before moving on to the next topic."
Then his 18-year-old son told him he needed to "clean up his act on the environment." As the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, he took his son's admonition to heart and joined a congressional delegation to Antarctica with Sen. John McCain and others. He did his best to resist the eloquent logic of Donal Manahan, a biologist from USC who led the expedition, along with the mountains of ice core data going back thousands of years showing the long stretch of stable carbon dioxide levels and temperatures, up to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
It wasn't until, in a private moment, when Manahan mentioned his ailing mother, that Inglis, whose own mother also was ill, opened up and truly started to listen.
The final step occurred in Australia, touring the Great Barrier Reef with Australian climate scientist Scott Heron, with whom he had gone snorkeling to look at bleached-out corals. He could see that Heron, a fellow devout Christian, "was preaching gospel through his work." Inspired by this shared worldview, Inglis told the crowd that when he returned home and wrote the Raises Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009, "a revenue neutral, border adjustable" — he paused, and then added, sotto voce, "carbon tax."
That did not go anywhere. It also got him voted out of office by a primary challenger despite his other conservative bona fides. Since then, he's been working with five other principals at RepublicEN to facilitate what is currently a community of 6,000 to 7,000 people. "We need to grow that to 60,000 to70,000 and then 600,000 to 700,000 and grow exponentially," he said.
Inglis sees his mission as twofold. First, to explain to conservatives that this is a real crisis and we need decisive action now. His secondary mission is to speak with liberals, who already understand the problem, and teach them how to talk to the other side.
"What you need to explain to Uncle Charlie," said Inglis, referring to any cantankerous family member who shows up at family occasions to shout down the liberals there, "is that we have a problem with economics that has an environmental consequence. If you fix the economics, the environment will take care of itself on this."
But, he continued, if he's held accountable, that will be expensive. "So, I go to my congressman and say, 'If you make me responsible, electricity prices will go up.'" Inglis looked around the room and added, "We dream of the day when 25 House Republicans and 12 to 15 Senate Republicans will say, 'We're already paying the full cost of your supposedly cheap electricity.'"
He's hoping to see that happen by 2022. Why Republicans? Because, says Inglis, "If it's bipartisan, it has a much better chance of not being rolled over by the next administration." Inglis also wants to get rid of subsidies for all forms of energy, including, "No more dumping into the trash dump of the sky without paying tipping fees for the damages you’re causing there."
Even in this administration, says Inglis, things are actually moving in Congress, at least in the committees, which is where ideas begin. He cites three reasons: "The economy is better since the great recession, people have seen more evidence of climate change, and 'eco-right' organizations like ours are beginning to provide a little bit of balance to the very large environmental left."
Consensus + crisis = change
Inglis later told me, "What I learned from 12 years in Congress is that leadership aimed at consensus, plus a crisis, equals change." We have the crisis. Inglis hopes to rally Congress to show leadership.
As to the details of the plan, Inglis said that he was flexible as long as it met the two criteria of being both revenue-neutral and border-adjustable. A number of plans for how to recycle the revenue have been proposed. "Art Laffer would prefer individual income tax reduction. My bill was a payroll tax reduction on FICA. The Citizens Climate Lobby is a dividend, as is the Climate Leadership Council. All of those are fine with us."
The border-adjustable part means that countries exporting into the United States would have to pay that tax, which not only would level the playing field, but also would induce those countries to assess their own tax. Inglis suggests that China go first. Soon after, the entire world would follow suit.
What will it take to turn the tide? "I think the catalyst for change among members of Congress could be their son or daughter, or even grandchild, coming home from State U, saying, 'What you are saying on the Senate floor about climate change does not agree with what we're learning at school,'" said Inglis.
Referring to the present moment, he added, "When the facts overtake you, it's time to stop running."