A Peek Inside Bob Inglis' Gop Climate Conversion Strategy

by Emily Holden, E&E reporter

A Peek Inside Bob Inglis' Gop Climate Conversion Strategy
Former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis (R)
We thought you might like to read a terrific interview with our colleague Bob Inglis that ran in the Aug. 18 ClimateWire. It is reprinted below.
To learn more about Bob's initiative to build a community of conservatives who support free enterprise action on climate change, visit his republicEN website. -- 4C
Bob Inglis, a former member of Congress from South Carolina, is an atypical Republican who spends his days arguing not just for climate action, but for a carbon tax, a dirty phrase in most conservative circles.
Inglis was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004 and lost his seat in a Republican runoff in 2010 after speaking out against climate change denial and backing a revenue-neutral carbon tax.
Lately, Inglis is making the rounds on conservative talk radio and meeting one-on-one with GOP legislators (Greenwire, Aug. 5). In light of the unpopularity of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, he says he sees a new opening to "bust up" the orthodoxy of conservatives opposing climate action.
Inglis, who is working with a group called republicEn, sat down with ClimateWire while he was in Washington, D.C., yesterday, to meet with the free-market focused R Street Institute, talk with local Republican lawmakers and appear on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal." The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Do Republicans need political cover to talk about climate change? 

They need to be able to articulate a solution that clearly fits with conservative values, and that's what we're trying to do at republicEn, is give them the confidence that there is a very free-enterprise solution to this that happens to be acceptable to some on the left, too ...
We think the best way to do that is through an upstream application of a revenue-neutral, border adjustable carbon tax. That last thing, carbon tax, that's sort of a discordant note in the Republican repertoire at this point, but what's the alternative? The alternative is a regulatory, Clean Power Plan, sector-by-sector, prone-to-litigation, domestic-only solution. And wouldn't it be better if conservatives stepped forward with an economywide, worldwide, through-the-border-adjustment solution that fits with what we believe?

If it's so hard for Republicans to support a "tax," have you thought about changing the phrasing?

Some people want to talk more about clean energy and sort of coming through the back door. ... We think it's important to go straight at it. We're not trying to fool anybody. We're after transparent, accountable marketplaces. And in selling that idea, we want to be transparent.

How do you combat attacks from the far right and from business groups opposed to your efforts? The American Energy Alliance, for example, recently issued a key-vote alert urging House members to vote for a resolution opposing a carbon tax (E&E Daily, June 7).

If I was still in Congress, I think I might have voted for it, too, because it seemed not to be describing what we're talking about. It must have been describing a revenue-positive, not border-adjustable carbon tax. If you asked me if I was still in Congress, if you didn't give me those two things ... even though I want to take action on climate change, I couldn't vote for it because I represent a wonderful manufacturing district.

How do you explain that difference to voters - a regular carbon tax vs. a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable one?

That is hard because you don't get 10 minutes to talk to an average voter. You get a second. So what it means is we are willing to take the arrows. You know, go on talk radio and begin explaining.

For example, in Texas recently, I was on a Houston station. The guy also broadcasts in Dallas. The tease was very dismissive. The guy said, "Next up we have a conservative who says he wants a carbon tax." And he laughs out loud and goes to the commercial break. I did that segment with him in Houston. The next day, they called us and asked, "Can you be on in Dallas?" It was a totally different feel because the guy had heard the explanation. Of course it helped that I was selling, "Well, here in Houston I'm hanging out with an engineer from Exxon Mobil and you realize that Exxon Mobil's for this, right?"' It's very helpful validation that Exxon Mobil's for what we're talking about.

How much do you need people to agree on the premise that climate change is happening and humans are contributing to get agreement on action?

It's better people have all of the above. ... If you have awareness of the problem, believe there's a problem and you're looking for a solution. If you don't have that first condition of aware and looking for a solution, it's a less powerful argument, but you can still make it, and it can still be accepted.
The best condition is a conservative who wants a solution, and these are typically millennial conservatives. They want a solution, they hear the free-enterprise solution and they like it, and they're aware that it avoids a regulatory solution. But that's probably the weakest argument - that this is going to happen anyway.

When you pitch a carbon tax, do you highlight what you see as the downsides of the Clean Power Plan?

Somewhat. We don't lead with that, but we do go into that when it comes up because we do think the Clean Power Plan is the worst possible way to deal with climate change. It's things you wouldn't want if you want fast action. The thing we really need is innovation to happen in energy as fast as it happened in telecommunications. We need the price of renewables to come down as fast as the price of cellphones has. I think you would find broad agreement among economists ... that [a carbon tax] is the most efficient way to get rapid innovation.

Whom do you target when you talk to voters? Mainly people who already think climate change is a problem?

We get our most positive reaction from millennial conservatives because they want the conservative movement to be relevant to their future, and they want it to have an answer to a very pressing problem that they believe exists. Their parents and grandparents are harder markets to crack, but there's a method to our madness in reaching them because millennials, we think they can help us reach their parents and grandparents.

Do you worry it's a wasted effort to take your campaign to people who think climate change is a hoax?

I want to have conversations with even those people. Probably it's not where we should spend most of our effort. Most of our work should be on the lower-hanging fruit. But I really want to talk to [Republican Oklahoma Sen.] Jim Inhofe because I believe as he does that God is sovereign. I think we could have a very fruitful discussion. I've reached out to him. He hasn't responded yet. We overlapped a little bit in the House, but his scheduler hasn't let me in yet.
I don't give up on anybody, in other words. I really want to talk to the Koch brothers, for example. I've never met them, but I really want to talk to them because this could be their legacy in saying, "We're libertarians, we believe in accountable marketplaces, and we're ready to man up. Put all the costs in all our products and let's see how the market treats them."

How much does it help that companies like Exxon Mobil Corp. support a carbon tax? Does it help that many utilities are saying we need to plan for a carbon-constrained world?

Validation by key, trusted companies is vital for us to build support on the right. Exxon Mobil is a trusted source for many people on the right. They're the people who've gotten us the fuel to power our lives. The power companies, same thing, they've got 40-year time horizons. They've got to plan. They need certainty.

How much is the presidential election affecting how you talk about this at the local level?

You're about to hear lemonade being made. I've got a great big box of lemons. ... I think in a strange sort of way this may help us. Donald Trump is iconoclastic. He's breaking up every orthodoxy. Who knows whether Republicans now are free-traders or protectionists, isolationists or interventionists, pro-life or pro-choice. It's anybody's guess. So in a strange sort of way, that flux busts up also the orthodoxy that sadly developed, which is, "We don't believe in climate change, you shouldn't either." It may be that he actually causes a re-examination ...
Once he loses, big time, then it's sort of a "Now, OK, what do we do? What do we do now that the Grumpy Old Party is in ash and ruins? Can you gather the 'Grand Opportunity Party' out of the ashes and say that this is what energy looks like if you're conservative?" It happens that some of the progressives can also embrace that solution, so I think it would bring America together on a price on carbon dioxide.

You've said you could never vote for Donald Trump. Could you vote for Hillary Clinton?

It's hard. I don't know what I'm going to do. I just know I can't vote for Trump.

Do you see a possibility that the Clean Power Plan could be replaced with something like a carbon tax?

There's good work being done by [Rhode Island Sen.] Sheldon Whitehouse and [Maryland Rep.] John Delaney - these are Democrats that have offered Republicans an olive limb, not just an olive branch, by saying we'll cut corporate income taxes.

But would that only happen if the rule survives court battles and looks likely to proceed?

It's a live and venomous snake, and therefore they're looking for an alternative. That's a better way to get there, even though I don't like the Clean Power Plan, than some catalyzing event like another superstorm or hurricane or local flooding or Zika getting into the Magic Kingdom. If you're in Florida, just imagine how horrifying that would be if Zika got into Orlando.

In your view, is there any catalyzing event big enough to push bipartisan action on climate change?

Experience is an effective ... and very harsh teacher. Sometimes it takes harder whacks to get the message through, but we're going to be whacked.
If you do nothing, we're going to have all kinds of claims for disaster assistance, and all kinds of appropriations for adaptation and removal of people from islands ... if you want a really big government, do nothing about climate change. If you want a smaller government, try to mitigate the problem, head it off. Surely it's consistent with what conservatives believe. This is a heart rejection. It's not a head issue.