A Republican maverick who preaches climate action

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Former six-term U.S. Republican South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis is a deeply conservative, free-market evangelical who believes a British Columbia-style carbon tax is a climate solution America’s political right can support.

But he climbs a steep mountain.

Inglis is a maverick among Republican leaders, who often laugh off global warming or say that climate regulations “imperil the companies in our country,” as presidential candidate Donald Trump put it recently.

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe’s tossing of a snow ball on the Senate floor this year to “show” climate change is a hoax— against decades of scientific evidence to the contrary— is another, if slightly more bizarre, example of conservative attitudes on the issue.

It’s no wonder, writes Inglis, that the political left has “successfully painted [U.S.] conservatives as troglodyte” cavemen.

The self-described "100 per cent Christian" South Carolina conservative says he saw the light about global warming after years of denying it. And rather than wage reactionary attacks, he preaches that Republicans should become "climate realists" and offer up even better free-market approaches to solving the problem than the Democrats.

“The lie is that we can’t do it, [that] we can't innovate, we've got to keep relying on petroleum, coal, we've got to have just those things. Why? To be in this situation, where those fossil fuels are imperiling our future, and future generations, and we're not accountable for that? That really becomes a moral problem,” he said.

Inglis leads a “RepublicEN.org” campaign, asking on social media #AreyouEN? —as in, 'Are you right with clean energy?' His efforts have earned him a JFK Profile in Courage award, and a "Climate 25" nod by the Weather Channel.

The National Observer caught up with him this week, while Inglis was on a cross-country crusade to remove the political stigma of acting on climate change for America's right.

Inglis's gospel is a revenue-neutral carbon tax: government charges for the CO2 that "imperils" us, then gives the money back in tax cuts.

"That second step of cutting taxes elsewhere is something that requires trust. Of course, as Ronald Reagan used to say, 'Trust, but verify,'" he said Tuesday.

New economic analysis says such a carbon tax could trigger a $1.3 trillion dollar clean energy boom in the U.S. over 20 years.

'Rock-solid conservative thought'

Inglis says that with a price on carbon, government can get out out of the way and end its subsidies of oil and gas.

"The only way freedom works in a free enterprise system is if all actors in the free enterprise system are fully accountable. If you let some fuels or actors who are burning those fuels... not be accountable for the climate costs they are creating, then you get a market distortion."

"That is rock-solid conservative— libertarian even—thought," he said.

Inglis [right] doing a selfie with students at Tar Heel Boys State in North Carolina. Inglis photo.

To many young U.S. conservatives, Inglis's words are a breath of fresh air. He's a “leading voice in breaking America's political impasse on climate,” said Tyler Higgins, a Furman College student executive with College Republicans.

The South Carolina campus group hosted Inglis Wednesday for a screening of the documentary “Merchants of Doubt” in which the politician is featured.

Inglis is thrilled young people get it.

"It's an exciting thing to work [with], especially among young conservatives, because they want conservatism to provide an answer to this crucial question that we face about how to solve climate change,” said Inglis.

"[They] want to believe that a free enterprise party can solve this."

Chapter 1

From denier to climate champion

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Inglis wasn't always so keen on climate. Early in his 12 years as a House Representative to the “reddest district” in the “reddest state” in America —South Carolina — Inglis was a global warming denier.

"Yeah, when I first presented to Congress, I said climate change was hooey. It was really ignorance on my part. All I knew was that Al Gore was for it, therefore my tribe was against it. That's really what we're [now] trying to counter,” he said Tuesday.

But when his son hit voting age, he urged Inglis to clean up his act on the environment. So he got on a Congressional science committee, flew to Antarctica twice, and talked to scientists about the climate change evidence. They showed him ice core samples dating back centuries.

“You can pull it up and examine CO2 levels," Inglis said. "They were really stable, then coinciding with the industrial revolution, there's an uptick. The chemistry is real clear. You're changing the chemistry of the air. So I decided really right there and then, I'm going to go back and do something."

Soon he was telling Congress, “There is a need to act… and to find a solution that breaks our addiction to oil, that creates new energy jobs, and that cleans up the air."

But Inglis’s call for a revenue-neutral carbon tax wasn’t well received. Say “carbon,” he later told a Simon Fraser University forum, and conservatives ”break out in hives."

Say “tax” and they’ll have an "anaphylactic shock," he mused.

Some called him a heretic, a traitor, and the "Al Gore of the Republican Party —and that was not meant as a compliment," he said with a laugh, in a podcast interview.

Tea Party trashing

Worse, his pro-climate stance soon made him the target a Koch-Brothers-funded campaign. Fuelled by the frustration of the Great Recession of 2008, Americans for Prosperity engaged in an all-out war to rid Washington of any politician pushing climate legislation, he said.

“You got to hand it to them, they've been very successful. Of course, it's troubling because the Koch brothers may have a financial interest in keeping things the way they are,” said Inglis.

The result? He was trounced in the 2010 election by a Tea Party candidate.

Chapter 2

Ruffling Republicans

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in the Merchants of Doubt film, Inglis is shown— two years after his defeat— driving to a conservative talk radio show in Mississippi.

Inglis tells the show’s host that the problem with tackling global warming is that the conversation was started by liberals.

“And what we're used to as conservatives is they gin up the hysteria, and then they drive through some regulation and some tax increases and grow government, right? So it's natural that we respond with 'No, we don't want to do that.'"

But immediately, the radio host shakes his head.

"I don't understand this. How do you come up with this? Because to me, every fibre in my body is saying, 'You're a conservative - you can't believe this!'"

“You're asking me — as a dyed-in-the-wool, native-born Mississippian, will die here and blessed to do so — to believe that humans are responsible for global warming and we must admit that?"

“I don't believe that humans are creating this! Because neither do apparently a vast majority of climatologists," said the exasperated host.

Inglis was soon cut off.

He says that kind of hostile resistance from the right is “all too common.”

“It happens a lot where conservatives hear the message and they are conditioned by the tribe to say that 'We can't do that. That's not us, that's the other tribe that wants to del with climate change,'" he said Tuesday.

Solution Aversion

New research from Duke University suggests many Republicans may be practicing “solution aversion." In other words, they may not hate climate change; they just hate the solutions.

“What they've seen is big government solutions and cap and trade that are enormously complicated,” said Inglis.

“So it's fairly typical for us human beings when we think that there is a solution that is an anathema, we go back and doubt the problem.”

“So if I told you, 'Here's the plan for surgery for that back problem you're having, and first we're going to remove your head. After we get your head off, we're going to work on your spine, and then we'll put your head back on.' You're going to say to me, 'Thanks doc, I feel a lot better.'”

Chapter 3

A climate act of faith

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When Pope Francis urged lawmakers in Congress in September to take “courageous actions" to tackle climate change, Catholic climate activists made sure all 166 Republicans got copies of the speech.

That same month, 11 Republicans broke ranks with G.O.P. leadership, and signed a resolution recognizing that humans are causing global warming.

Inglis said that was a “great initial step…[but] it will be miles before we sleep on this.”

Turning the U.S. conservative tide on climate, he says, will take a moral and spiritual calling far beyond economics or science.

"This is not just a head thing. This is very much a heart issue,” he said.

“It really is for me a walk of faith that [to do] this, to seek a solution to climate change, to actually seek to love God and love people. It's absolutely essential that we spread that message, especially among American evangelicals. So that we can embrace this and realize this is an incredible opportunity for the gospel."