A Rare Duck In A Shrinking Pond Of Climate Change Deniers

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.

Nukunonu Atoll is considered one of the regions of the world vulnerable to the impact of the climate change.  24/Oct/2007. Nukunonu Atoll, Tokelau. (image credit: UN/Ariane Rummery/Flickr)

Nukunonu Atoll is considered one of the regions of the world vulnerable to the impact of the climate change.
(image credit: UN/Ariane Rummery/Flickr)

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]. 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.

(continued on page 2)

yale-e360Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to bring you this article courtesy of Yale Environment 360. Author credit goes to Roger Cohn.

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jon.casey5 Jon Casey

    The sun is responsible for a lot — like sustaining life. But humans are responsible for the global warming we see today. http://clmtr.lt/cb/pwg0cW

  • http://www.facebook.com/toni.barton.54 Toni Barton

    Scientists have known about global warming for decades. It’s real. So let’s move on to what we can do about it. http://clmtr.lt/cb/pwg

  • http://supak.com Scott Supak

    While this guy is teaching basic science to wingnuts, I hope he gets in a little economics, biology, astronomy, physics, and all the other things that most conservatives deny. Seems like a rather Sisyphean task, though, trying to teach people whose ideology tells them every thing they need to know, science be damned. I applaud him for his efforts, but I wonder if at this point we wouldn’t just be better off marginalizing the wingnuts and the tea party and moving on without them.

    So, stop voting Republican. Vote as if the whole world depended on it.

    • rwmsrobertw

      It’s good to see that at least some conservatives are willing to understand the science. Maybe those conservative students will feel a little less threatened to hear the scientific truth of global warming from one of their own. I hope he’s able to make a difference – we need all the help we can get.

    • Shawn

      I don’t believe it is very constructive to be calling them wingnuts, etc (even if you think they deserve it). Much like they would say libtards or something of the nature. Only with respect and not belittling them may we try to bring them to the climate reality which they are ignoring. Emotion of being insulted will get in the way of facts.

      • http://supak.com Scott Supak

        Gotta disagree. Liberals have been too nice and what has it gotten us? Iraq. Housing Bubble. No action on AGW, instead, we’re trying to stop the stupidest pipeline idea ever. The wingnuts have us on the defensive because they stand up strongly for what they believe. So, that’s what I do. I put right back in there faces what they deserve.

        Look at it this way: These people, who told us there were WMD in Iraq, that housing wasn’t the biggest asset bubble in the history of the world, that crap paper should be rated AAA, that tobacco didn’t cause cancer, are now telling us stuff that will lead to the biggest disaster in human history. And we’re supposed to be nice to them? Screw that.

        We’re not going to change those minds anyway. I’m talking to the people who might not know what all this is about, and they see me getting angry, and they think, wow, this must be important. They see people talking calmly and they think, well, how bad can it be? No one is really all that upset about it.

        My favorite tactic is to challenge them to bet on it. I saw Neil Degrasse Tyson on Bill Maher arguing with former GM chairman and AGW denier Bob Lutz. After Tyson took Lutz’s lunch money on the facts, he told him “You can go bet on it.” He was talking about Intrade.com, popular for real money markets that accurately predict elections and such, which has markets on global warming, arctic ice extent, and the like. I was making money in those markets, but, unfortunately, the CFTC recently took action against Intrade, and Americans aren’t allowed to bet there now. So, I have to encourage the wingnuts to help me lobby the CFTC to #FreeIntrade so they can put their money where their mouths are.

        But whatever. Don’t chastise me for my methods and I won’t chastise you for yours. I find the thought of what these people want to do to the planet horrifying, and I’m going to react strongly. They are science denying wingnuts, they’ve been disastrously wrong about almost everything, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to be nice to them anymore than I would be nice to any other blood thirsty murderer.

        • Shawn

          I think you have to rethink. When people see someone angry, people will see someone angry and wonder why. When they see someone angry and insulting they don’t give any credence to their statement and write them off. i.e. If your boss yells at you in an embarrassing manner constantly throughout the office for a mistake you made you aren’t going to try to perform better, you will resent him and try to subvert things that they say.

          Now- if you want the ultimate revenge and in a SMART way that will influence them, put the argument in their perspective, say like cleaning up all these disasters is going to kill the taxpayer when govn’t has to step in, etc (obama shoul’ve said that in his SOTU I think). Manipulation/influence (the revenge) not brute force (which that’s something you and dubbya have in common apparently) wins out. And that I’ll have my way and you have yours thing is a complete rehash of a right wing argument. Think.

          Being angry and effective and being outrageous and ineffective are two different things. Movements win out by PERSISTANT, impassioned – yet rational – action not the other way around.

          If you are angry be commanding and use more educating, stern and effective dialogue. Don’t become what you hate. And please, don’t set back our efforts by driving more away.

          And not all conservatives are against climate movement, maybe a VAST MAJORITY, but not all. Don’t discount them out (ConservAmerica- check them out).

          • http://supak.com Scott Supak

            You’re not talking to some kid that just fell off the turnip truck here. I’ve been doing this a long time now. Ever since GW Bush’s little adventure in Mesopotamia really ticked me off. I come from a background of very aggressive people: stagehands. It’s like being in a Biker Gang. Seriously. Bunch of tough guys for the most part. I have many converts from that world who have seen me stand up to the wingnuts who insulted me, threatened me, and belittled me in public and on the job. I gave it right back to them as well as, or better than, they gave it to me. I earned respect. I did it by standing up for what I believe is right.

            You might not like my methods, and you might have some pretty arguments for why I should cool it, but I really don’t care. This is how I roll. Do I piss some people off? Sure. Then they lose it and look like even bigger fools. That’s what I call them taking the bait. Works wonders, and often sends them to Intrade where I can take their money, because, honestly, anyone who would bet against global warming at this point deserves to get fleeced. We’re not going to change his mind, but I can sure put my little version of a carbon tax on his ass.

            Now, if you’re calling me irrational, then you and I are going to have a problem. I might be over the top (this is the internet, and we do have to use a step up transformer to make sure we’re heard here in hyperbole land) but I’m not irrational. I back everything I say up with facts, I link to the supporting evidence, and if you care to follow me around the internet, you’ll see I get a lot of props for putting these bloodthirsty assholes in their place.

            I’m not becoming what I hate. I don’t hate them for their tactics, or their vile, or their smugness. I hate them for what their idiocy will do to the world. Because I do not support allowing that idiocy to do that to the world, I therefore cannot become what I hate.

            In fact, I often admire the way the GOP sets the tone of just about everything. The way David Gregory is sometimes on Meet the Press with John McCain. They do it through being mean, nasty, and even brutish. They intimidate people. They push people around. And they win. Maybe we should start getting back in their smug faces with Facts presented in the same way as they present Bullshit.

          • Shawn

            Totally get your point now, Dubbya.

          • http://supak.com Scott Supak

            Right. Because I wasn’t physically assaulted multiple times for opposing the lying bastards who got us into Iraq, I was the one spreading Dick Cheney’s lies via teleprompter to mouth implant.

            This is similar to the wingnut argument that a bunch of Democrats voted for the war. Does that make those Democrats as bad as the people who lied to those Democrats for their vote? Does adopting tactics successfully employed by right wing snake oil salesmen, namely in-your-face rudeness against perceived threats (real or not), make it more likely that I will connect with people who respond to in-your-face rudeness against perceived threats, in this case when I can prove that the threat is much more real than Iraqi WMD?

            In short, a lot of real macho types are on the wrong side of the facts on this argument. You talk nice to them if you want, but I’ve spent my life around them, and I know what gets their attention.

            Now, please, I saw in the news today that Intrade might have a way to open back up for Americans. Please encourage any wingnut you get in an argument with on global warming that you know a guy who is willing to bet on it at Intrade. Because if they won’t put their money where their mouths are, then it’s all just hot air.

  • http://work-bench.org/ Christopher Miles

    Good on Bob Inglis.

  • Dan

    It was unclear if he wanted to price in things other than carbon into the cost of energy. I strongly believe that all (or at least most) items should be priced according to their total effect on Earth – pollution, waste, poisons, etc. Obviously, you have to simplify it a lot to make it manageable, but someone creating a large box for a small item (cereal boxes, toy packaging, etc.) should have to pay an additional cost to account for effect of additional waste on top of any additional mfg cost.
    That should encourage conservation or at least provides additional funds to deal with the waste.

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