Bob Inglis: Climate Change and the Republican Party

Republican Bob Inglis is a former South Carolina congressman. In 2010, he lost his bid for re-election after telling a radio host that he believed humans were contributing to climate change. “The most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real,” he told FRONTLINE. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 12, 2012.

Take us back to what your role was in Congress. …

I represented the 4th District of South Carolina … from the election ’92 until election ’98. And then I was out six years and then came back for another six years between the election 2004 and the election 2010.

Why did you leave, and why did you come back?

I left after six years because I had voluntarily subjected myself to a six-year term limit, so I had to leave the House. Ran [for] the Senate unsuccessfully in ’98, and then returned to commercial real estate practice, practice of law, and then came back to Congress in 2004 and would have happily continued on after 2010, but I got specifically uninvited to the Tea Party.

Tell us about that. How did that happen? …

I think what happened is I was focused on some things that seemed long term, and the voters were more focused on the near term. We had the financial collapse in 2008, we had the ongoing recession surely in the ’10, and so they were focused on this month’s mortgage and this month’s paycheck. I was seen as talking about things of the future, and so that mismatch created a problem for me politically for sure. …

What do you think was the main factor and the reason that you lost in 2010?

I committed various heresies against the Republican orthodoxy. I voted against [the Iraq] troop surge. … [I] voted to disapprove [Rep.] Joe Wilson’s [R-S.C.] outburst against President Obama, for example. I was for an immigration proposal that might include a path to citizenship.

And still all those were heresies, but the most enduring heresy that I committed was saying the climate change is real, and let’s do something about it.

I voted against cap and trade, because I think it’s a big tax increase. It grows government; it decimates American manufacturing; it’s hopelessly complicated. … But I proposed an alternative, and the alternative got me in some trouble. It’s basically a revenue-neutral tax swap where we would reduce taxes on payroll, shift the tax to carbon dioxide and revenue-neutral rates that the government wouldn’t grow, but we would just change what we tax as a way of trying to get the true cost comparisons on the fuels. …

Why was it such a heresy for you to say what you said about climate change? … What happened that made that suddenly an untenable position?

Part of it is that the economy was bad, so when people are dealing with this month’s mortgage and this month’s paycheck and their boat is just inches above the waterline, they don’t want anybody standing up, rocking the boat.

So when you’re talking about things of the future and challenger fuels and the fuels of the future, that’s pretty much standing up in the boat and rocking it. Voters were more inclined to say: “Listen, just sit down in the boat. Don’t anybody rock this thing unless you see if we can get through this patch.” …

But it also had an interesting sort of religious heresy element to it as well. In this district, we call ourselves the “shiny buckle of the Bible Belt.” So I think for some it is a religious heresy … for us to presume that any action that we would take would affect the longevity of his creation [and] is an affront to sovereignty of God. …

… In 2008 you had two candidates that were running for president, and on both sides it was real. So what changed?

… First was the economy going down. … The second thing is that religious element to it. … But I think the other part of it is just purely political heresy, and that it became convenient to say that this is a Democrat idea, and therefore let’s reject everything that Barack Obama would say.

So this sort of populist rejectionism took hold, and so anything that looked like or sounded like it came from a Democratic kind of an address, that would be “return to sender” on that. So I think all three of those things happened really.

Was [Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth] part of the impact of it or what?

I think so. I mean, Vice President Gore became very associated with the issue. … It’s not like Al Gore’s running for any office these days, … but for some reason he remains a lightning rod for many conservatives on this issue. …

… What was known on Capitol Hill? … What do you think is really behind [the rejection] of the science?

… So when you’re dealing with an existential threat like death or like climate change, if you see it as we are all toast anyway, then denial is a pretty good way of coping. So a convenient way to dismiss the anxiety [that] comes from the awareness of climate changes, you say: “Must not be a real. Scientists must be off.”

“When you’re dealing with an existential threat like death or like climate change, if you see it as we are all toast anyway, then denial is a pretty good way of coping.”

Another part of that is that if I accept the science, then perhaps it means I need to change my behavior. Perhaps we really do need to figure out how to innovate on the energy front. And if I don’t want to innovate or feel it would be too expensive, I don’t want to admit that I’m selfish, so the better way to dispose of it is to say, “Well, science must not be right.” Dismissing the science becomes a way of getting around changing my life. …

Another one is there’s an assumption of technological progress, that somebody is going to fix it, whoever that somebody is. I remember speaking with a grandpa who I knew very well, and I know him to be a very caring fellow. … He was upset with me about voting [against] cap and trade. He agreed with that, that I should have voted against cap and trade, but he very much disagreed with any focus on energy and climate.

So I was talking to him about, “What about your grandkids?” And he said, “I think they can get [by on] their own.” … I don’t think that that caring fellow really meant it quite that bluntly. I think what he meant was, somebody will figure something out.

And of course my response to him is, well, technological innovation will sure work better if we set the economics right, because what we believe as conservatives, and people who believe in free enterprise, is if you set the economics right, somebody chasing the dollar will deliver to me a better product. They will make money, and they will serve my needs. That’s what makes our system go around.

But he can’t get to that next step of getting the price on carbon, because if you attach that price, that external hidden cost to the product, it changes economics and all kinds of exciting things happening for the enterprise system.

But he wants to stick at the point of saying it’s not a cost. The CO2 is not a cost; it’s not a negative. If it’s a negative externality, it’s of zero value. If you attach a zero to it, there’s no change in the pricing structure. So for him, it’s very important to continue to deny the science because he wants to assign a zero to the cost of carbon.

Like [the ad about] carbon: “Some people call it pollution. We call it life.”

Right. They’re breathing it, so therefore how could it possibly be bad? And of course I tried to explain that. I’m not a scientist. I was on [the Committee on Science and Technology]. I just played one when the lights came on.

… I used to pooh-pooh climate change. In my first term in the Congress, six years, I said: “A bunch of nonsense. Al Gore’s imagination.” We had a very successful press conference where we absolutely panned Vice President Gore’s proposals on a Btu [British thermal unit] tax. So that was Inglis 1.0. …

My kids had an impact on me. I got in trouble for saying this, but my oldest was voting for the first time when I ran again in ’04, and he said, “Dad, I will vote for you, but you are going to clean up your act on the environment.” And so I had this new constituency: my son, my four daughters, my wife, all feeling the same way.

But then the other thing that really happened was as I get to Congress [for the] second time, I was on the science committee and got to see the evidence. And the main evidence really was in Antarctica, is the ice core drillings that show that in a mile of ice on top of the South Pole, … we’ve got what the scientists believe is 800,000 years or so of records of the earth’s atmosphere, because the South Pole is a desert. It only gets a quarter of an inch of precipitation a year. So in those ice core drillings, you can find a record of the amount of CO2 over time in the atmosphere. …

And so for me it became pretty clear in that evidence that, gee, that makes sense; that we just started burning all this fossil fuel, we affected the chemistry of the air. Physics are physics, and light comes in, heat doesn’t go out, you are warming.

[Journalist] David Frum once said something very interesting to me. He said, “We learn what we need to learn in order to protect ourselves.” And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on in the rejection of climate sciences, is I want to protect who I am; I want to protect my lifestyle; I want to protect what I built.

And the way to do that is to not receive information about how this fossil fuel thing really is creating a problem, because my life is sort of built on those fossil fuels. If I’m challenged to change that, and I want to protect what I’ve got, I reject that information. And so we learn what we need to learn in order to protect ourselves. …

You are talking about you only know what you want to know. Who were some of the people? …

It’s really, really disappointing that there are people out there that are selling themselves as experts who aren’t. … Lord [Christopher] Monckton, who is actually a journalist who holds forth on climate science, … people sadly on my side of the aisle have listened to him and presented him as an expert. …

Why do you think that is?

Because I think he’s saying something that people want to hear. …

The thing so unusual about that, though, is that we conservatives are usually the people who use the example of the buggy whip manufacturers. In our passionate advocacy of free trade, we say you can’t hold back the market.

If the market is saying we don’t need buggy whips anymore because we are going to ride in Henry Ford’s automobiles, then we conservatives, people who believe in free enterprise and believe in free markets, have typically been the ones who have argued against, for example, labor unions, who invariably are the ones trying to hold onto the buggy whips and protect their jobs.

We invariably are the ones saying you’ve got to roll with this thing. You’ve got to innovate; you’ve got to go forward; you can’t stand still. And we are right in saying that. We are surely right.

But oddly, on fossil fuels, we are now in the position of saying no, we cannot go forward. We can’t see any future besides fossil fuels, and we insist on “Drill, baby, drill” as the answer.

One of the fascinating hearings I have been to in Washington was a hearing with Anne Korin of the Set America Free Coalition. She is testifying at [the House Committee on] Foreign Affairs. She says to the committee: “You’ve got 3 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves. OPEC has 70 percent. Change the game.”

And so the questions came from both the Republican side and the Democratic side, same questions — fascinating to watch this. Republicans asked, “What about the Balkan reserves?” And the Democrats — this is before the Gulf oil was spilled — would say: “What about the Gulf [of Mexico]? Could we get more oil there?” …

So when it came my time to ask her a question, I said, “Miss Korin, the problem here is you’ve just called us oil wimps, and we Americans don’t like being called wimps about anything, but you just called us oil wimps.” And I said that “What we need to realize is we are innovation giants, so why don’t we just change the game? Why do we keep on challenging Tiger Woods to a golf match? Why don’t we say, ‘Tiger, listen, I hear your knees hurt; maybe your back isn’t so good. How about a little basketball, you know?'”

Let’s get into a different game. Let’s figure out a way to say to the Middle East, to the people that don’t like us very much with that oil: “We just don’t need you like we used to. We’ve got a different [way] of getting around now.”

But oddly, really I don’t understand why it is that we conservatives seem to be in the position of saying, “No, we’ve got to hold on to this barrel of oil.” …

[The Congressional Budget Office] had a study recently. They showed that even if you drill heavily in the United States — which I think we should, by the way. It makes sense near term. Dig it as much as we can so that we can continue to operate but meanwhile even more aggressively be pursuing the future fuels, the challenger fuels rather than these incumbent fuels. But CBO studies show that if you drill a great deal more, you don’t bring down the price of gasoline.

In [this] case, you are dealing with a cartel, and the cartel has a dominant position. So let’s say we take our 3 percent, and we drill, baby, drill, and we get to double it at 6 percent. Maybe we triple it, get to 9, quadruple, you get to 12 percent. Well, OPEC is then down to what, maybe 60 percent of world supply?

That means that when we drill and produce more oil, they just ratchet back the supply, keep the price where they wanted. So why are we playing this game within it? Why don’t we figure out a way to get out of this, to innovate, and why do we keep on holding onto this buggy whip since we’ve got to protect those jobs, which is not the DNA of conservatism? …

… So what’s really going on behind the scenes? How much do you people on Capitol Hill, the ones who are saying they don’t believe in it, how much do they really know about it? Do they know, and they are just saying something different? …

The challenge that we’re taking up in this Energy and Enterprise Initiative that I’m working on is basically creating a safe space for conservatives to pay attention to science, because right now it doesn’t seem safe to pay attention to the science because the ideology says no, the science is wrong.

“Right now it doesn’t seem safe to pay attention to the science because the [conservative] ideology says no, the science is wrong.”

So we’ve got to create a safe zone where Republicans, conservatives can start talking about the economics and how setting the economics right could really change, have free enterprise deliver a real muscular solution to energy and climate far better than a big-government approach of mandates that are always clumsy and tax incentives that are most often fickle. They expire.

Right now the production tax credit is almost gone or will be going at the end of the year. Wind turbine orders are way down. Solar ain’t happening without that production tax credit. So why don’t we just set the economics right is what we are going to be arguing. …

So our challenge is to create an opportunity for members of Congress, elected officials, to actually lead on this.

Most of us complain about Congress. We say it’s a place that doesn’t reflect us; they don’t listen to us. Actually, Congress well reflects the American people. It gives us exactly what we ask for. We say we want a balanced budged, but please don’t touch my parents’ Medicare, and please don’t touch the Social Security, and I’ve got a relative that needs Medicaid for disability conditions, so please don’t touch any of those things.

Well, if you don’t touch Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, you are not balancing the budget. Congress hears me very well. Let’s balance the budget. Don’t touch those big three. And so Congress doesn’t act, which is exactly what I’m asking them to do. Don’t act.

Now, the same thing on climate change. I sort of want this innovation. I think I could see how that would be great. But on the other hand, I think it might be painful if you really affected my energy prices right now and put the real cost on there.

And so Congress does exactly what we ask them to do. At some point, though, the American people begin to lead, and then politicians join in that leadership. So you’ve got to build the support in the country, and then the political process will reflect that support.

So explain what you are doing now and how you hope to change this.

We did this thing called the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, and it’s an attempt to convince conservatives that we actually have the answer to energy and climate. It’s called free enterprise, and it’s called accountability.

It’s just attaching the true cost to all the fuels. Eliminate all the subsidies for all fuels, the government picking winners and losers. That’s a clumsy way of doing business, and you end up [with solar panel maker] Solyndra and embarrassments like that.

So let’s just eliminate all the subsidies for all the fuels, and then let’s attach all the costs to all the fuels so that then there is a true cost comparison between the incumbent fossil fuels and the challenger fuels.

That will make innovation happen, and the result will be that we’ll really win the triple play of this American century, I believe, which means that we can simultaneously create wealth by creating these new technologies that we sell around the world. And that creates jobs, so we create wealth.

Second, we improve the national security of the United States, particularly if we can innovate in the transportation sector and get off this dependence on petroleum.

And the third, if we care, we clean up the air. If you don’t believe it’s necessary to clean up the air and dispute the science, well, can we just go with those one and two then? Are you for wealth creation, job creation, and are you for improved national security? …

Why [has] every president since Richard Nixon made the same speech about ending this dependence on foreign oil? And they are still making the same speech. Answer: We haven’t yet begun to fight, not for enterprise, because the costs are in our petroleum.

We think petroleum is high; we think gasoline is high. It didn’t begin to show the real cost of it. When we consider the supply-line protection that we pay for in defense costs, the risk that we take in national security since the blood that we have shed in protecting that supply line, it’s way more expensive than the $3.30 or $3.50, whatever it is, we are paying. If you stuck it to petroleum and said, “Listen, we want to do some honest cost accounting here,” we’d see the real price, and we’d start innovating. …

So in the case of coal-fired electricity, it sure does look cheap until you add the 23,600 people who die prematurely each year of lung diseases because of the soot out of coal-fired electrical plants and the 3 billion lost work days. You put that in the equation, and you see that gee, coal-fired electricity isn’t that cheap. …

Why is it such a difficult thing? …

Because what I’m saying has been a discordant note in the Republican song, and we don’t like discordant notes. The dominant theme has been we’re just going to go drill more of our own oil and we are going to solve this problem. We are going to dig some more coal; we’re going to solve this problem.

But we need to come along with this other note. … But for now, it’s become the dominant theme that no, we’ve just got what we’ve got. We’ve got to live within this world. This world is fossil fuel; it’s incumbent fuels. These challenger fuels aren’t going to work. They are too expensive.

And what I had hoped to convince conservatives of is that unless you are some wide-eyed liberal, you really shouldn’t believe that there’s such a thing as a free lunch. …

We pay through our health insurance policies. We pay through higher premiums that cover the people who have these long[-term] ailments who show up at the hospital. We cover the cost of Medicare and Medicaid patients through our taxes and the cost that the hospital has to shift onto one of those three that has those cards that are available to them. …

We are paying them, every penny of it, just not at the meter and not at the pump. If you pay it there, then you’d have an enlightened customer, a consumer acting in enlightened self-interest to innovate. And that drive to innovate would create an opportunity for an entrepreneur to deliver the better product. That’s the power of the freedom price system. …

How influential are the forces that want to keep up the old system in terms of the campaign contributions, the money and politics? How big of a factor do you think all of that has been, and the shifts and some of the rejection of the science?

I think it’s a significant factor. The campaign contributions from the incumbent fossil fuels, kind of related entities, are significant and drive some of the discussion.

I think that there are not so much direct contributions to campaigns, though. It’s more in creating think tanks and what appears to be an intellectual position that says the science is wrong. It’s funding the doubt about science is where they are making their most effective play. That’s where the money is having the biggest impact. …

How much credit do you think those think tanks and those creators of doubt get in changing the public debate and making this a more polarized issue?

I think they have been very successful. They have really done an amazing job of introducing doubt where there really was very little doubt in the scientific community. …

When you get the financial collapse going, that’s what made it possible for some well-spent money to blow doubt into the science, because, you know, the bankers failed us, the Fed failed us, the federal government is failing us, it’s spending too much money and these scientists [who are] funded by that federal government, they are probably in it, too, and besides, they are godless liberals. …

What makes you say that they were successful? …

If you see the polling data, you see a real dip in the number of people who buy into the science and who accept the science and a hardening of positions. …

This isn’t going to be easy to fix. … We are talking real change. But it is a big change to go from horse and buggies and those buggy whip manufacturers to Henry Ford’s car. …

[Congress] sits there and doesn’t act until there’s some kind of crisis, and then there’s something to propel us forward. And that’s what we’ve got to hope for, some catalyzing kind of sense [of] let’s go forward; let’s handle this. That’s when the Americans are [at] their best. It’s like Winston Churchill said: “You can always count on the American people to do the right thing after they have exhausted every other option” [sic].

And so we are going to do the right thing on energy and climate, maybe after we’ve exhausted every other option. But we are going to get there, I believe, because we are a nation of innovators who believe in the future. …

I want to go back and make sure that we get really the story of what happened in your race. How do you know that it was because of the climate change stance?

Let me give you a sense of the scene. I had a big tent gathering in Spartanburg County, a bunch of Republicans underneath a very big tent. … And so there comes a question to me from the local Christian talk radio host, who says, “Yes or no: Do you believe in human causation on climate change?”

I had a bad habit of answering questions, so I said yes. Boo, hiss, comes the crowd. I was blasted out from underneath the tent. There are a couple of hundred, 300 people there. I mean, it was intense.

So then the question went to the other [candidate]. … He said, “Inasmuch as it hasn’t been proven to the satisfaction of the people that I represent, the answer is no, there is no human causation in climate change.”

I thought to myself it was a good political answer. It doesn’t exactly win your Profile in Courage kind of award, you know. It was a particularly good political answer. …

[One] very important thing about science is that for many people, there’s this real conflict between faith and science. And particularly in some districts like the one I had the joy of representing, there are people that really do see a conflict between their faith and science. I don’t. …

I think God wants us and science to discover this creation, so why wouldn’t we listen to the people who have given their lives to this endeavor, who have learned and who know things that I don’t know? Why would we shut them out and decide to listen to some people of not-so-credible backgrounds who had been funded [by] some folks who are in a conscious effort to introduce doubt where very little exists? I don’t know.

“I don’t believe that history is going to treat the merchants of doubt on climate change any better than we are treating the merchants of doubt on the link between cigarette smoking and cancer.”

But we are going to get beyond that. I think that eventually people are found out. [Sen.] Joe McCarthy was found out, and history didn’t treat him very well. And I don’t believe that history is going to treat the merchants of doubt on climate change any better than we are treating the merchants of doubt on the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. …

… The rise of the Tea Party. … How did that play into your race, and how much of a factor was that in terms of your opponent, ads used against you?

… I’m a pretty conservative fellow. I got 93 American Conservative Union rating; 100 percent Christian Coalition; 100 percent National Right to Life; A with the NRA; zero with the ADA, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal group; and 23 by some mistake with the AFL-CIO. I demand a recount. I really wanted a zero from the AFL-CIO. So I’m a pretty conservative fellow, but not conservative enough for the Tea Party. …

I had a primary opponent [Charles Jeter] in 2008 who called me the Al Gore of the Republican Party. … I’d say: “No, Charles, it’s promise and opportunity. You’ve just got to look at it the right way.” And, you know, it’s innovation; it’s a future; it’s a way out of this box we’re in. It’s a way out of the inherent conflict we’ve got in the future with, for example, China over scarce resources of petroleum, for example.

But in 2008 when he said that, it started to stick, and it became sort of an oft-repeated theme on talk radio, and that is a major source of information, of course, for Republican primary voters, especially when you are facing a runoff, which is a low-turnout election. We knew it’s very difficult. And that would seem to be a dominant theme that they were hearing, is that Inglis has left the reservation; he has gone off message here; he is over there somewhere with Al Gore. …

The dominant narrative was, no, you just reject this. And we’re mad about our financial circumstances. We don’t trust these people in government, and they failed us. And they have. The whole system was failing; the financial system, the government system, all of it seemed to be failing.

They created a rejectionist mood, and the narrative was we get to move away from these people that want to do big-government planning and that sort of thing, and let’s just go hunting fish at our own land. I understand the instinct. It’s just that at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. …

So your former colleagues on Capitol Hill now are sort of boxed in on this issue. Do you feel sympathy for them? What do you think is the mind-set of why people feel they can’t talk about [it]?

I think many really know better, and many are aware of the science. I think they’re nervous about the science, and I think they’re also aware that if they’re conservatives, that you can’t build a credible conservative movement where you’re trying to hold back facts with shaky ideology. It just won’t last, so I think they are nervous. They are aware.

But, you know, the first people up out of the foxholes get their heads blown off, so it’s maybe a little bit too early to ask them to get up out of the foxholes. We’ve got to build some air cover for them to try to get up that hill. We’re going to try to do that at home for them to build support, so that if they have some air support, maybe they’ll get up out of the foxholes, start charging the hill. …

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