Heresy may have cost Bob Inglis his seat in the U.S. Congress. As a six-term Republican congressman from one of South Carolina’s most conservative districts, Inglis told an audience at a 2010 campaign event that he believed in human-caused climate change. The fallout from that comment helped ensure his defeat by a Tea Party-backed candidate.
After leaving Congress, Inglis established the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. The organization has taken on a daunting mission — to convince American conservatives that climate change is real and that free enterprise principles hold the keys for dealing with it. Inglis favors removing all fuel subsidies — from solar and wind to fossil fuels — and imposing a carbon tax as the fairest way to make polluters pay for the greenhouse gas emissions they cause.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Inglis talked about his own evolution from being a climate change denier; why he opposes cap-and-trade schemes; why conservatives have been so reluctant to acknowledge that climate change is real: and why his group is focusing its efforts on college Republicans. “We’re trying to convince conservatives that they are more important to this than they ever imagined,” he said, “because they have the answer, which is free enterprise. And it’s a better answer than a regulatory regime.”
Yale Environment 360: What is the goal of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative?
Bob Inglis: The goal is to see a true cost competition between all fuels, and the result of that, we believe, is that free enterprise will solve our energy and climate challenge. It’s just a matter of getting a true cost comparison between the fuels, and that will only happen if we eliminate all subsidies for all fuels, because subsidies distort the marketplace. And we need to attach all costs to all fuels, which is the other distortion of the marketplace. The first one is something that conservatives are familiar with — that tune is playing on conservative radio right now, of eliminating all subsidies for all fuels. Now it’s been focused on Solyndra [the bankrupt solar company] and the excesses of the Obama administration, but we believe that conservatives will recognize pretty quickly that this should include other fuels. That means eliminating fossil fuel subsidies as well. That part isn’t playing on the radio now, but that’s a tune we have to introduce to conservative ears and see if we can make people recognize that that it’s bedrock conservatism: I shouldn’t be able to do on my property something that harms you and your property.
Conservatives see the worldview of people concerned about climate change as antithetical to their own.
e360: And are producers of fossil fuels doing that?
Inglis: Yes. Coal-fired electricity causes 23,600 premature deaths each year in the United States. There are over 3 million lost workdays. Those are real and quantifiable costs that aren’t attributed to the cost of electricity at my meter. And so I’m blissfully unaware of the true cost of my electricity. And since it appears so cheap, I don’t innovate because there’s no reason to innovate. I live in South Carolina — I could have a solar hot water heater for example, but I don’t have one. Anyone altruistic would put one on their roof. I would like to be altruistic, but I’ve got two kids in college, and I can’t afford to be altruistic. But if the meter started reflecting the real cost of electricity, I would look at things differently.
e360: So the true cost would be put in through a carbon tax?
Inglis: Yes, it’s a way of approximating that cost. I was at Harvard recently and Bill Hogan, an economist there, pointed out to me that the best way to do this is by attaching the actual cost to each emitter. Then you have the truest of true cost comparisons. I think that’s exactly the right answer.
e360: The work of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative is aimed at convincing conservatives to come on board with this?
Inglis: Right. What we’re trying to do is convince conservatives that they are more important to this discussion than they ever imagined because they have the answer, which is free enterprise, and it’s a better answer than a regulatory regime. And better than what some Republicans in the past might have gone along with, which is sort of fickle tax incentives that expire and have qualifications to them.
We believe that conservatives will ultimately come to embrace the power of their own ideas, which is, ‘Gee, a price signal works, and it’s powerful.’
e360: Why do you think it’s been so difficult for most of your fellow conservatives to accept the science and the idea of human-caused climate change and that it’s happening?
Inglis: Well, there are lots of reasons, but one is that conservatives see the worldview of people concerned about climate change as antithetical to their own worldview. It’s a cultural clash, because scientists are seen as godless deniers of the truth, particularly faith truths, and they seem to be in league with big-government types that want to regulate your life.
e360: You yourself were skeptical of climate change when you were in Congress in the 90s, as you’ve said. Can you describe your own evolution from being a denier of climate change to someone who is deeply concerned about it?
Inglis: My first time in Congress [1993-1999], I was very dismissive of climate change and said, “Oh, well, this is imagination.” I had a very successful press conference pillorying the vice president [Al Gore].
“A question comes to me, ‘Congressman Inglis, do you believe, yes or no, in human causation of climate change’?”
And I was in Congress for six years, and then I was out for six years and in those six years, my children started to grow up. My son, my oldest of five kids, was voting for the first time in 2004 when I was running again, and he said, “You know, dad, I’ll vote for you, but you have to clean up your act on the environment.” I had this new constituency, an important constituency, because they could change the locks on the doors. My son and his four sisters all felt the same, and his mother did too.
So, that was one cause. The other cause was, I got on the science committee [House Committee on Science and Technology] soon after my second period in Congress started. And I got to go to Antarctica to visit there — you know, the U.S. spends about $300 million per year on the polar programs.
e360: When was this?
Inglis: It was in 2006. Amazingly, I got to go to Antarctica twice. I went to Antarctica and saw the evidence. And one thing that was compelling to me was, you know, the South Pole is a desert and gets a quarter of an inch of precipitation a year, and it’s 10,000 feet above sea level. It’s 5,000 feet of dirt, and then 5,000 feet of ice on top of that, and just a little teeny bit of powder on top. So we’ve drilled down through the ice, and we have a record of the earth’s atmosphere and its CO2 levels. And this gives a pretty clear indication of stability followed by an uptick that coincides with the Industrial Revolution.
e360: You’ve talked about a key moment in your  campaign that occurred, I think, in Spartanburg at a big tent meeting. Can you describe that?
Inglis: Yes, at the Landrum airport. It’s a small landing strip, which is a great place to have events. There’s a big tent out there. So a question comes to me from the Christian talk radio host who is moderating the forum, and he says, “This question starts with Bob Inglis. Congressman Inglis, do you believe, yes or no, in human causation of climate change?” And you know, I have a terrible habit of answering questions, so I said, “Yes.” And boo, hiss, comes the crowd. It’s audible hissing and booing.
The same question was then asked of the guy who ultimately beat me. He’s a trial lawyer, a prosecutor guy, and so he had what I thought — I had to give it to him — was a fabulous answer. He said, “Inasmuch as it hasn’t been proven to the satisfaction of the people that I represent, the answer is no, there is no human causation in climate change.”
e360: A very lawyerly answer.
Inglis: Do you think that’s how we should handle all scientific questions — put them up for people to decide? “What do you think? Gravity, yes or no?” Well, let’s let the people decide! It was a particularly good answer at the moment, for him. It won him the applause of the crowd.
e360: What do you believe the U.S. can do to really address climate change?
Inglis: I think we should send a price signal. That means fixing the economics so all costs are in on all the fuels and there are no subsidies. A bill I had in Congress is one way to do it. There are other ways, but the bill that I had was a $15 a ton tax on carbon rising to $100 a ton over 30 years. And I was always open to whether that trajectory should be changed. The reason I had such flexibility is because of what I would say next: You then offset that [carbon tax] with a reduction in payroll taxes, dollar for dollar. And that’s why I was so flexible. It’s a tax swap, that’s what I was talking about. It wouldn’t grow the government, and it would approximate the attachment of these negative externalities to combustion fossil fuels.
You’ve got to give me a corresponding tax cut if you’re going to price carbon.
Another key element, I think, of what needs to be part of the package is that it should be a border-adjustable tax, so it would be removed on export and imposed on import — unless the trading partner has a similar pricing mechanism, in which case their goods would come in without an adjustment. But it’s very important, I think, that we not decimate American manufacturing by simply pricing carbon in our own economy with the effect of exporting productive capacity to countries that have greater energy intensity and therefore larger CO2 emissions.
e360: This was something that you offered in Congress as an alternative to the cap-and-trade bill that was out there at the time?
Inglis: Right. I voted against cap-and-trade.
Inglis: It was hopelessly complicated, and it was embarrassing in the free allocation [of allowances to specific pollution sources or industries] that undermined the whole schema. It was dangerous to American manufacturing. I know they had a border-adjustable element, but I was never convinced that it worked. And it was a significant tax increase without any corresponding tax reduction. And I’m not into growing government. I’m a conservative. So I’m into getting the economics right, but not growing government in the process. And so you’ve got to give me a corresponding tax cut if you’re going to price carbon.
What I introduced is called the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon bill, and if you Google that, I think you can find it. It’s fifteen pages as opposed to the 1,200-page cap-and-trade.
e360: You’re taking your message now to conservative audiences and business audiences? Who are you aiming your initiative at, and how are you going about reaching them?
Inglis: We’re spending a lot of time on college campuses speaking to college Republicans, Federalist societies, and young evangelicals. The reason is that they’re open to it, because they’re taking economics and chemistry and physics.
“When the left is talking to the right about these issues, it comes across as, ‘We know better than you do.’”
They’re really a little bit embarrassed by what’s on the [conservative] radio, because they know it doesn’t match up with what they are learning in economics, physics, and chemistry. And so we want to help them to see there’s a way that you can be conservative, not want to grow government, and actually be for social-issue accountability, which is a key component of what social-issue conservatives believe. You’ve got to be accountable. Behavior has consequences, so attach the cost to something so that the market can judge it.
These students are open to that message, and we hope these students will be ambassadors to their parents and grandparents. Those are the harder demographics for us. Their parents and grandparents are harder — especially the grandparents, who feel an attack on their way of life.
e360: Do you think environmentalists are in some ways to blame for this because the approach has sometimes been to hector people about their lifestyle and their responsibility for these things?
Inglis: I think so, because it’s like my ad guy on my campaign says to me. He says, “We all like change, just we don’t like to be changed.” We want to be the change agent, but we surely don’t want to be the one who gets changed by somebody else. We want to be in the driver’s seat on that.
And so what happens often when the left is talking to the right about these issues, it seems like it’s coming across as, “We know better than you do. You’re a bunch of hicks from the sticks. We’re so much smarter than you are. We’ve got scientists who tell us this and that. We’ll design a regulatory system that will fix things, because we can’t trust you to make good decisions.” That’s one way it comes across — and it’s offensive to conservatives.