By Patrick Reilly
November 16th, 2015
On November 16th, former congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) visited International House for a screening of the documentary Merchants of Doubt, an event co-sponsored by the University of Chicago's Energy Policy Institute. Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4th District, which covers the highly conservative Greenville-Spartanburg area, from 1993 to 1998 and again from 2005 to 2010. During his second term in Congress, he advocated for a tax on carbon pollution, to be offset by cutting taxes elsewhere. This position put him at odds with other conservatives, and in 2010, Inglis lost his congressional seat to a primary challenger. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library recognized Inglis’s commitment to the environment in the face of political pressure by presenting him with its 2015 Profile in Courage Award. After leaving Congress, Inglis founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, which engages conservatives on the issue of climate change. You can learn more about this group at its website, RepublicEn.org.
During the film, Global Voices intern Patrick Reilly spoke with him about this work. You can also read this interview in The Gate, Global Voices' partner student publication.
Global Voices: When you were an IOP Fellow here in Spring 2014, I remember you discussing your opposition to President Obama's proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the EPA. Now that it has been finalized as the Clean Power Plan, do you see any redeeming aspects of it?
Inglis: Maybe as a vise to pry action out of [my] fellow conservatives. In other words, there's a risk that the legal strategy that some believe will save us from the Clean Power Plan—which is the regulatory answer that we aren't real fond of at RepublicEn.org—could fail. And if that legal strategy fails, then it makes it necessary to have an alternative. So in that way, it's useful as a vise or a hammer or a sword of Damocles hanging over conservatives. It's [like saying], "Come up with something, or else!" Many conservatives are basing a lot of hope on the legal strategy, but that legal strategy could fail.
Gate: You started the Energy and Enterprise Initiative in 2012. One of the biggest energy developments since then has been the crash in the price of oil. Do you think that will make your group's proposal to tax carbon an easier sell?
Inglis: Perhaps. We got used to high [gasoline] prices for a while, and now they're down . . . and the result is that people are feeling less threatened. Of course, my problem, when I was talking about [climate change] when I was still in Congress, was that I was doing so in the midst of four dollar a gallon gasoline. People were very nervous at the time, and very much feeling under threat, and then here comes a guy with even more threat: increasing the price of gasoline twenty-five cents a gallon by putting a twenty-five dollar per ton price on carbon dioxide. I think now it's a little bit better because there's a sense that we can handle these gasoline prices.
Global Voices: Have your former constituents in Greenville-Spartanburg warmed up to the idea?
Inglis: (laughs) I don't know. I think among the activists in the Republican Party, no. My friends are with us on it, but not so much the activists. They really have been womped up into some fear by people who are spending some very good money on creating that fear or fanning the fear, keeping it going, making sure it's burning hot. And that's one of our huge challenges, figuring out how to spread some calm, rather than this sense that the bureaucrats are trying to take over the world, that these godless scientists and the big-government types are taking over. So what we want to show is that they're not necessarily godless scientists, and that there's a small-government answer to this.
Global Voices: I got a sense of that fear watching Marco Rubio voice his doubts about energy reform in one of the recent Republican debates. What do think it would take for your group to win him over, or, say, Jeb Bush, or John Kasich?
Inglis: I think it wouldn't take much in terms of reaching any of the three of them, because they're smart enough to understand that this is what economists would say to do, and they're smart enough to understand the science. The question is whether we can show them enough political support [for them to lead] in that direction . . . That's what we've gotta do at RepublicEn.org. You might wish that politicians all lead because of some courageous conviction, but the reality is that politicians generally follow—they don't lead. So if we can establish a constituency for free-enterprise action on climate, then we will have some volunteer leaders among politicians.
Global Voices: Are there any developments you're hoping for from the Democrats that might enable you guys to set yourselves up in opposition to them?
Inglis: It's a very interesting question. So far, the 2016 race has gone better than I had feared. We haven't yet had the disaster that happened in the 2014 North Carolina Senate GOP debate. The moderator asks, "Is climate change a fact?" The audience laughs audibly. The first candidate says, "No." The second candidate—she's laughing—says "No." The third candidate says, "No, it's God's will," and the fourth candidate, Thom Tillis, who got elected to the Senate from North Carolina, says "No." Fourteen seconds, and the issue is done in North Carolina. The good news in the current presidential race is that we haven't had that disaster.
What we do have is the risk of continued polarization. I happen to believe—it may sound counterintuitive—that the best shot at early action on climate is a conservative in the White House. The country could trust such a person to touch climate change. Just like Nixon could go to China and Bill Clinton could sign welfare reform, a conservative can do climate change. If, say, Hillary Clinton were elected President, you would have someone who’s perceived as being very close to Al Gore and the alarmists—that'd be the perception of some conservatives—and it may actually slow down progress [on climate change]. It's counterintuitive. But nevertheless, I'm sure the environmental left will line up behind Hillary. The problem is, that would bake in the polarization for four more years.
Global Voices: What about on the Congressional level—are there any races for the Senate or the House that you’re watching?
Inglis: There’s action in the House. Chris Gibson from New York is introducing a resolution. The Gibson resolution says that climate change is real, and he’s got eleven other Republicans on it. So that’s a very encouraging sign. It’s similar to the Hoeven Amendment in the Senate that got fifteen Republican senators to say that climate change is real. And so there is some movement. Now, in fairness, most of those on the Gibson resolution are from moderate districts. So it's gonna take a while longer for it to spread into deeper red districts. Which is of course what we want to do. We want to show really deep red Republicans that this is consistent with what they believe.
Global Voices: The movie that you've come to present, Merchants of Doubt, focuses on how public-relations campaigns have led a lot of Americans to deny issues like climate change and the health risks of smoking. But a lot of people in this country, many of them liberals, have denied the science on issues like vaccine safety and GMOs. Have the conservatives you've met brought that up as a sign that liberals can't be trusted either on matters of science?
Inglis: It's a great question. The answer is no, conservatives usually don't bring it up. But I've got another to add to the list. It's abortion. The science clearly shows that an [unborn] baby is a human being. So nobody has a corner on science. We choose to accept science or not based on something else that's going on in our hearts. As a guy who's a pro-life conservative, I think the science is very clear on when life begins. To argue otherwise is an unscientific position. To argue against GMOs is a terribly unscientific position. To argue against vaccines, which happens on both the left and the far right, is a very unscientific position.
And the thing that's interesting is that a lot of people who dispute the science behind climate change are actually highly literate in scientific matters . . . Dan Kahan at Yale found that those who dispute the science of climate change tend to score better on science literacy than does the general population, which is an interesting fact. You might remember that Dan Kahan was one of my guests in my series here at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, and one of the things that Dan has found is that the more developed your worldview, the more certain you are about what you've come to in your mind. [These people have] invested a lot of time and energy deciding on whatever worldview they've developed. And so they quickly dismiss contrary information, which is a really fascinating result. It's not what you would expect. You would expect for such a person to be open to new ideas. But it's a very rare bird that's actually open to new ideas.
Global Voices: In your work with RepublicEn.org, have there been any moments when you've managed to change a really conservative individual's mind on the issue of climate change?
Inglis: Yeah. One of the more exciting times was actually on the radio, on a libertarian talk show. The tease going into the show was not going well. [When it ran,] I was in the dentist office, actually being attended to. I'm getting these texts from the guy that does media with us saying, "The tease is not going well. They're setting you up for slaughter." So I was like, "Oh, golly . . ." I race out of the dentist's office, sit in the car, get on the phone, and call from South Carolina into the radio station in Florida. The host extended the segment, and by the end he was accepting the idea that [people taking action on climate change] really are solid conservatives, and what they're talking about makes sense. So that was exciting.
It had to do specifically with rooftop solar and third-party financing of rooftop solar. Some states are fighting that, which is so contrary to what we conservatives believe. “By golly, that's my castle. My house, it's my castle, it's my roof, and I will contract with whomever I wish to put a system up there, but there's some monopolistic power companies that are trying to stop that third-party financier from installing that on the roof.” That was quickly apparent to that libertarian talk-show host, and by the end he was signed up with us. The reason we talk about that a great deal, especially in Florida where the fight about that issue is going on right now, is that it opens up a conversation about, "What else can free enterprise do?" And of course it can do a lot in climate change. It can fix the problem.
Global Voices: When you won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, you mentioned that one of the moments that changed your mind on climate change was when your son said that he would vote for you, but that you had to clean up your act on climate change. Do you think that other conservative senators and representatives would change their minds if more of their kids spoke up?
Inglis: I think so. Kids have a powerful opportunity here. It's really a significant influence that kids have over parents. I've always felt that, but now I've actually heard some data on it. It's always fun when your hunches are confirmed by data. Tony Leiserowitz at Yale—I was at at a conference of his recently—pointed out data that shows that the transmission of ideas is actually stronger from child to parent than from parent to child. Which makes sense, because a culture that's able to adapt is one that's able to hear from young people, because they have a greater claim on the future than older people. Older people have the title deeds, but young people own the future. So yeah, I think that there's a real opportunity, especially for college students, to speak to their parents and really affect them.
It's not a threat. In the case of my son, some people—and oddly, in my view—perceived it as a threat, that he was really gonna refuse to vote for me if I didn't change my action on the environment. But it was not in his economic interest to not vote for me. He needed to vote for me, and was gonna vote for me no matter what. I think he was saying, "I love you, Dad, and I want you to be where you can be, but you're not there yet, so how about you get with it? You can do better than this."
If it's in that spirit, I think that the children of parents who are not yet accepting climate science—or believing that there are [solutions] that don't hurt the economy, that actually improve economic performance, and that are deeply consistent with conservative-held values—can have a huge impact on their parents, just by being patient with their parents and showing them the science and the economics, and by asking, "Isn't this what you say you believe, Dad?" "Isn't this what you say you believe, Mom?"
Global Voices: As for college students, here at UChicago we have a fairly vocal divestment campaign. What's your take on that movement?
Inglis: I really don't know. In fact, I was interested in what Michael Greenstone was just saying [about that topic]. It adds some market pressure, which seems to me to make sense. Of course, I always think that another way to play it would be to just get some money together from lots of folks or some wealthy folks and go buy the coal companies. And then say, "We're saving that coal for the future." The [coal companies’] market price is down real low right now. You could almost do it. It wouldn't cost that much money to buy the coal companies and say, "We're not gonna exploit this resource at this time."
I know [about divestment] in the case of apartheid. When I was in Duke University as an undergrad, I wish that I had been involved in that effort. I wasn't. It was one of those things where you look back and think, "How did I miss that?" That clearly put pressure on South Africa and ended apartheid, so it worked there. And so it seems to be a tool that works. On the other hand, I'd need to think that through a little bit more about whether there's another way to engage with those companies. We haven't really been involved in the divestment effort at all.