A Republican Evangelizes for Action on Climate Change

Bob Inglis is a convert to the cause

From 1993–1999, Bob Inglis served as a congressman representing Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina, which he calls "the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation." He defined his politics in opposition to the liberal Democratic elite: If they were for it, he was against it, and of course, that included taking action on climate change. Then a few things happened: Inglis took a break from Congress, and when he ran again, his kids asked him to rethink his position on the environment. Once elected, he went on fact-finding missions to explore the evidence. He went to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef. He reflected upon his Christian faith’s call for believers to be stewards of God's creation.

Eventually, Inglis became a climate believer. In 2009, he introduced a bill promoting a carbon tax, with payroll-tax-relief offsets. Between that, his moderate stance on immigration, and his reluctance to back the 2007 "surge" in Iraq, he didn't stand much of a chance against the Tea Party challenger in his 2010 primary race (Rep. Trey Gowdy, who became a Benghazi hobbyist).

He lost the race, but he kept fighting. Today, he's the executive director of RepublicEN, a think tank promoting free-market solutions to climate change. As a passionate evangelist to conservatives on the issue, he's spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk to those who are in denial, and has some ideas about how you might talk to them, too.

As a conservative who believes in and thinks we should do something about climate change, what's the most important thing on your own political agenda right now? Is it working on solutions with people who acknowledge the problem, or is it trying to convince others that the problem exists?

Bob Inglis: It's time to convince conservatives that there's a solution that is consistent with conservative principles. It's not so much about talking about the problem, [but] talking to them about the exciting solutions that exist in free enterprise. That there's a real answer in accountable free enterprise, and if we really believe in the power of free enterprise, we'll venture on that belief and lead the world to a solution on climate change.

Why do you think this doubt and denial about climate change is a particularly conservative issue in America? In Europe and other countries there's much less left/right division over this.

Inglis: Well, I think it has to do with the fact that the solutions that have been offered have generally been about growing government, and so that creates a reaction against climate change by conservatives.

There's a social science theory that people identify with a tribe first, and then accept the beliefs that come with it. So in terms of climate change, people first decide they identify as a conservative or Republican, and their stance on climate change comes with that. How do you address that? I mean, it seems like a tougher nut to crack when it's part of someone's identity.

Inglis: I think we need to [send] credible messengers to confirm their truth. Tell them that they're really good and they're right, their philosophy works — it makes sense to have free enterprise rather than government regulations. And we're in the business of trying to make people see that [climate change] is not contrary to what the tribe believes, [but] actually completely consistent with what the tribe believes.

Are you concerned that climate denialism is going to become even more ingrained in the Republican belief system, because of their current leadership?

Inglis: I think that leadership is passing and it's going to be a short-lived phenomenon. Populism made some false promises and is going to be found out. The coal jobs are not coming back. It was not a war on coal by Barack Obama. It was a war on coal by George Mitchell, the perfecter of fracking, who increased supply of natural gas, brought down its price. Populism told those people that the jobs are coming back, [but] those promises will be found as false. When they are, I think there [will be] a conservative resurgence, where people [will] actually have solutions based on free enterprise that are acceptable on the left as well.

There are people on the left who agree that free enterprise, properly held accountable, can deliver innovation. It's the lack of accountability for emissions that's creating the climate havoc. So you make us accountable, and all kinds of innovations become economics. Conservatives are really good at understanding and spreading that message. But populists know that's not their message. Their message is that coal jobs are coming back, [which] will be proved to be unworkable.

Your family, particularly your kids, played a huge role in changing your mind about climate change. What advice do you have for young people who might want to influence their parents on this issue?

Inglis: Oh, it's so important. We find the greatest acceptance among young conservatives. Their parents are little bit harder, and their grandparents are pretty much set. But the love that the children have for their parents and grandparents will enable them to be heard by their parents and grandparents. In this case [young conservatives who believe in climate change can say], "I'm a conservative, and I say climate change is real, and yeah Grandma, I'm here, and I love you, and this is not going to destroy our way of life. This is not going to make us untrue to our Republican tribe. It's going to make us saviors of the conservative cause." Because if we don't get with it and show that there's an answer in free enterprise, and lead progressives to that answer here in America, and lead the rest of the world to the answer, then we are going to miss this opportunity and conservatives are going to be relegated to the ashes of history.

What I hear you saying in that scenario is definitely not to start with facts, but with the position of, for instance, saving conservatism. You're not starting with, "Let's look at CO2 levels," but with the idea that maybe we need to be open to this. Is that a more helpful way to have these conversations?

Inglis: We want to start with a solution, not with a problem. And that sounds strange until you come to consider the possibility of what we're dealing with [among conservatives] is solution aversion. The psychological state where you don't think there's an acceptable solution, and therefore you doubt the existence of the problem.

I was thinking about climate denialism in terms of evangelism. In my experience, the most powerful kind of evangelism, for anything, is seeing people who live their lives according to their values, in a way that makes sense to me. In 12-step programs, they talk about “attraction, not promotion.” What is the “attractive” way of doing climate change evangelism?

Inglis: That's part of my story. First, my son [said], “Dad, I'll vote for you, but you gotta clean up your act on climate change.” What he [was] really saying [was], “Dad, I love you.” He wasn't threatening me. “Dad, I love you, you can be better than you were before.” That's step one.

Step two was coming to know the science. And the trip to Antarctica [helped], really because I was able to see [the impact we made on the climate] as human beings.

But then the third step really is this attraction rather than promotion. I could just tell that Scott Heron, my climate-scientist friend, was a believer based on what I saw in his eyes, what I heard in his voice, what was written all over his face. [He] was worshipping God in what he was showing me at the Great Barrier Reef. Then he told me about conservation changes he's making in his life in order to love God and love people. He takes his bike to work, he hangs his baby's diapers out on the line rather than using the dryer. He tries to do without air-conditioning. And so, all of that was very attractive to me. I wanted to be like Scott, loving God and loving people. That's really when I decided to introduce the Cut Carbon Act in 2009. He wasn't promoting, at least in that interaction… The attraction was not the position, it just was what he was embodying.