At this point, denial is the official Republican Party stance on climate change. Not a single one of their presidential or (to my knowledge) congressional candidates has affirmed the existence, much less the danger, of anthropogenic climate change in the 2012 election cycle.
But Bob Inglis is bucking the trend.
Inglis was drummed out of the U.S. House in 2010 when South Carolina voters gave his Tea Party challenger more than 70 percent of the primary vote. Among Inglis’ sins: daring to be concerned about climate change. And despite the fact that it arguably cost him his seat, he hasn’t given up on climate, or on his party. This week, Inglis is launching an Energy & Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University to promote conservative solutions to global warming. I caught up with him by phone recently to find out what those solutions are and who else is on board.
Q. Tell me about the new organization you’re starting.
A. It’s called the Energy & Enterprise Initiative. It’s an effort to advocate for the elimination of all subsidies for all fuels and the attachment of all costs to all fuels. That’s the free-enterprise fix to energy and climate. If you correct the market distortions and make all fuels accountable for all of their costs, that will drive innovation and as a result reduce CO2 emissions.
The freebies for coal and petroleum are substantial even if you leave out the climate change impacts — just consider the health impacts, or attach to petroleum some of the defense costs in the Persian Gulf.
We want the accountability that is a key value of social-issue conservatives, who believe, as I do, that human beings are responsible actors. The argument to social-issue conservatives will be, if you’re coal, you gotta be accountable! If you’re causing 23,600 premature deaths in the U.S. annually, over 3 million lost work days annually, pay up!
And to the economic-issue conservatives, the argument is, don’t you see the market distortion? If those costs aren’t attached to coal, how will you ever build a nuclear power plant? It used to be convenient for us as conservatives to blame enviros for why we’re not building nuclear power plants, but if we update our rhetoric to the actual facts, what we find is it’s more a question of economics. It just doesn’t make sense to build a nuclear power plant if you can build a coal-fired plant that can belch and burn for free.
For the libertarian conservative, our case will be that we shouldn’t socialize costs and privatize profits. And for the national-security conservative, the case is, why haven’t we broken this addiction to oil? Why has every president since Richard Nixon made the same speech that Barack Obama made last spring? Because we haven’t said we’re ready to fight this thing; we’re gonna make the economics right. We fund both sides of the war on terror. We fund them with our gas pump purchases and then we fund the bombs to blow them up.
So the concept is, all four docks on the waterfront of conservatism, we think we’ve got a case — social-issue, economic-issue, libertarian, and national-security conservatives.
Q. What is the group’s primary purpose?
A. Well, it’s a 501(c)(3), so therefore it’s education, of course with a point of view: We believe in pro-growth, free-enterprise principles, and we believe that those principles will fix the energy and climate problem. We think it is the particular province of conservatives, but we acknowledge that there are many progressives who would agree as well that you fix the market distortion and good things happen. We want to celebrate that profit motive; we think it’s fabulous. We want people to make a lot of money off of selling these technologies and create enormous wealth for themselves and others. Progressives might shy away from celebration of all that profit. But both would likely agree that we haven’t tapped the power of the free-enterprise system yet.
Q. Are you hoping to have impact on the 2012 elections? Or is this more of a long play?
A. Long play. We think it’s 2015, 2016 before anything happens. After the next midterm. Either a new Republican president will, under market pressure, say to the country that we need a grand bargain to bring down rates and broaden the base, and a great way to do that is to shift off of taxing income and toward taxing CO2. Or it’s a second term for President Obama and the same market pressure pushing Congress and the president to do something. Perhaps some of the rejectionism of Obama will be declining because he’s a lame duck, just like the Clinton hatred subsided some as he moved toward the end of his second term.
Q. Do you have a sense of how many conservatives share this point of view?
A. Because of the economic pain that we’re all experiencing, there’s a lot of anger, sadly being aimed right now at a scapegoat. We’re searching for somebody to blame it on. We’re all in this together. We have a structural deficit. We have an over-leveraged economy that now is going through the painful process of de-leveraging. The sad reality is, there’s very little the government can do to fix that, to lessen that pain. It takes time to come down to earth in terms of the amount of leverage that individuals and corporations and governments can carry. So that’s where the anger comes from.
Over time, one of two things will happen to cause the reemergence of a bloc of conservatives that say, we’re into solutions. One is, the economy improves and the anger subsides. Or two, we have our fill of the anger and we just realize at some point that it’s not getting us anywhere.
Q. So you think the main thing driving the current conservative attitude toward climate science is economic anger?
A. I think that’s where the explanation starts. Yesterday, in my class [Inglis is a Visiting Energy Fellow at the Nicolas School of the Environment at Duke University], I assigned J.M. Bernstein’s great piece “The Very Angry Tea Party.” It starts with economic dislocation, but his point is, at a very deep emotional level, it shows that our self-concept as autonomous beings is inconsistent with our reality of interdependence, and to some extent dependence, on a social network of support from Medicare, Social Security, and other ways that we have formed community.
The thing where I’m obviously out of step is, I think it’s possible to be a conservative who wants to build community. That it is consistent with the ethical teachings of Jesus — to be a communitarian, to care for the sick. But right now what we have is anger and rejectionism. On energy and climate, there’s an element that just rejects action, rejects the science, rejects anything and anybody with a PhD.
I think you should respect people who have given their lives to learning about climate systems and listen to them carefully. They know a lot more than I do. But this is not where we are right now.
If you look at the history of this country, there was something called the Boston Commons. Savannah, Ga., was a planned city and has beautiful parks; Charleston has some beautiful public spaces. The idea being, we can build a community here. We’re going to care for one another. Now, there’s a big difference of opinion about how far that goes in terms of the role of the state. But you start with the notion that we’re going to build community.
Another reason for rejectionism has to do with an assumption of technological progress, that they, whoever they is, will come up with something. It’s not a strategy as far as I’m concerned. The unnamed they will come up with something faster if we set the economics right.
And some of the rejectionism is based on a sort of recoiling from the apocalyptic vision of some advocates of action on climate change. That apocalyptic vision actually hurts us because it drives the sense that, well, we’re all toast anyway. We may as well eat, drink, and be merry. If I believe that I’ve got some control over my destiny, I might rise up and exercise responsibility. But if I think it’s all predetermined and I’ve got no hope, denial is a pretty good coping mechanism.
If I accept the science, and that leads to the conclusion that something’s up, and I’m a responsible moral actor, I should change my behavior. But if I’m not willing to change my behavior, it’s better for me, not to admit that I’m selfish, but to attack the science. Attacking the science is an easier way to dispense with the question.
Q. How many name conservatives do you have involved in this project? How big of a bloc can you build?
A. We have to convince conservatives that this won’t cut you off from a community that you find relevant. In a way, I’m the worst commercial for that!
My view is, there are a lot of Republicans in foxholes on this hill, ducking as the fire gets intense. At some point, some are going to get up out of the foxholes and start running up the hill. Some will fall on the hill, but this is what we count on people doing in places like Afghanistan right now. If all they’re going to shoot at you is words, most of them will bounce off. You might lose a job. But are you really going to stay in that foxhole?
We’re trying to sound the call. They’re starting to come up. We’ve seen some op-eds written on this point of view. The first validator we put on the scene was Art Laffer, at an event on February the 23rd at Vanderbilt business school. We chose it because it’s a Southern zip code; the center of gravity of the Republican Party is South. I speak Southern. And Art Laffer is an unassailable conservative from the Reagan years. He’s agnostic as to climate change, but he said in Nashville, “I don’t need to know. All I need to know is, you’re taxing something you want more of, which is income, and you’re not taxing something you arguably want less of, which is CO2. Change what you tax.”
Q. Any elected officials willing to stick their head up yet?
A. Uh, no. Our assumption is that it’s too early to ask them to lift their heads out of the foxhole because they’ll be targeted. Their heads will be blown off! You might have some earlier movement by governors because they’re in a different spot.
Our focus is not so much direct persuasion of House and Senate members. We can’t do that because we’re a 501(c)(3) anyway. Mostly it’s an effort to build support in the districts. It’s important to build a constituency, to go into districts to help find the college Republicans, the young evangelicals, the Federalist Society members who will think fresh on these things, and who might just start a parade that elected officials could lead … when they start coming up out of the foxholes.
Q. Have you found people on the money side of conservatism who are with you on this issue?
A. There are financial supporters also in the foxholes. I see them as maybe the first ones up out. They have some security — better helmets. Politicians don’t have much of a helmet; they really have to rely on public opinion. But the Republican entrepreneurs in those foxholes, they’re doing the numbers. They know that if you internalize all fuel costs, you could make a profit selling alternatives. They have some financial stability; a lot of members of Congress don’t have that. If they lose a job it’s a big dislocation for their families and for their self-concept. Entrepreneurs are used to taking that kind of risk.
I hear from some [entrepreneurs] who say we can do it without any policy change — the costs are coming down on solar so fast that we’re going to get there before any policy gets done. I hope so. But it sure would help if you could set this playing field level.
Q. In the short term, the visible effect of your plan will be energy prices rising. How do you address that?
A. Here’s what I say: We already pay all those costs. We just don’t pay at the pump or at the meter. The challenge is convincing folks that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Somebody’s gotta pay. I am currently paying, you are currently paying, the full cost of coal-fired electricity. We pay it in higher health insurance premiums, we pay it in the costs at hospitals, we pay it in Medicare and Medicaid.
We’re paying for the protection of the petroleum supply line through general taxation. This should drive economic conservatives crazy. If I paid the full cost at the meter and at the pump, I’d have a desperate need for innovation. That would drive investors to meet my need. They’d make money by serving me, and I’d have a fix to my problem.
The challenge is that when your economic boat has only a little bit of freeboard, you don’t want anybody standing up, rocking the boat. We’re used to it. I just paid $3.33 a gallon for gasoline. The real price is way higher than that, but hey, don’t go messing with my budget.
Q. Visible prices are a lot more politically charged than invisible prices.
A. Right. That’s why we’re hoping that Federalist Societies, economics clubs, and college Republicans who are hoping to get an A in Econ 101 will serve as sneezers in a viral marketing campaign.
Q. Do you think climate played a big role in your 2010 loss?
A. It was my most enduring heresy. I committed various heresies against the current orthodoxy: I voted for TARP to try to save us from a depression; I agreed with President Bush about a comprehensive immigration solution; I disagreed with the president on the troop surge (that was heresy back then, I’m not sure it’d be one any more; things change quickly in politics).
But the most enduring heresy I committed was saying that climate change was real and let’s do something about it, even though I voted against cap-and-trade. I don’t like that solution; I think it’s too complicated, it decimates American manufacturing, there’s just real problems with it. So I had the foolish political instinct to propose an alternative, a bill we introduced that got precisely two cosponsors — two very brave people, Jeff Flake [R-Ariz.] and Dan Lipinski [D-Ill.]. It’s called the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon bill. It is a tax shift, off of payroll, on to carbon dioxide — a 15-page alternative to the 1,200-page cap-and-trade bill. It was a border-adjustable tax, removed on export, imposed on import.
Q. Do you think the Tea Party wave has crested?
A. The wave was high in 2010. It dipped a little bit during the debt-ceiling brinkmanship. I think it will rise to an even higher point as this horse race develops between the president and Mitt Romney. But then I think it subsides, when market pressure forces us all to be educated about the problem. Because that’s the thing that I’m counting on as a conservative: that we’re going to have real accountability, real discipline, not a politician bloviating about how we can have accountability, but real dollars and cents and interest rates. The invisible hand is a strong hand.