Former Rep. Bob Inglis’ conservative bona fides were about as solid as they come, earning him a 93.5 percent lifetime approval rating from the American Conservative Union over his two tenures in the House — from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2011. George H.W. Bush went to bat for him in campaigns in 1992 and in 1994. Rep. Jack T. Kingston was one of his closest friends on Capitol Hill.
These days, the South Carolina Republican, bounced from his seat in a heated primary with tea party favorite Trey Gowdy in 2010, has far fewer friends in the GOP. He broke from the party faithful by voting for the Troubled Assets Relief Program and by voicing what he calls “conservative concerns” about President George W. Bush’s nation-building project in Iraq.
However, his “most enduring heresy” has become public advocacy for action to combat climate change.
After that, “it was definitely, ‘Don’t get in the frame if somebody’s got a camera,’” Mr. Inglis told The Washington Times during a recent conversation at a Georgetown hotel to promote the documentary “Merchants of Doubt,” which examines America’s spin industry and in which Mr. Inglis figures prominently. “It is pretty painful. You sort of lose your tribe.”
It takes a certain fortitude to take a position with little traction among Republican power brokers — even more so when a congressional seat is on the line — but Mr. Inglis chose principle over incumbency. His felling at the hands of Mr. Gowdy was a landslide.
Back in private life, Mr. Inglis founded the Energy and Enterprise Initiative to seek out free market and conservative answers to problems of energy and climate. Maintaining that he has been and remains a proud conservative and an advocate of a “free enterprise party,” Mr. Inglis nonetheless takes his climate evangel to Republican and libertarian gatherings, often being heckled in the process. (One of the scenes in “Merchants of Doubt” shows a room slowly emptying during one such speech.)
“The worst thing in the world is not losing elections,” Mr. Inglis said, “it’s losing your soul. That’s the worst.”
After his first stint in Washington, Mr. Inglis returned to commercial real estate law in his native Greenville, South Carolina, before his constituents returned him to the U.S. Capitol in 2005.
Ahead of his campaign to retake his old seat, Mr. Inglis said his son came to him and said: “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’ve got to clean up your act on the environment,” a sentiment, Mr. Inglis said, that was shared by his daughter as well as his wife, Mary Anne.
“That was my constituency, you know?” Mr. Inglis said. “A whole lot of sons want to grow up to be like their fathers, but I’m trying to grow up to be like my son.”
Pressure from the hearth was one thing, but Mr. Inglis demanded scientific proof. Accordingly, he flew to Antarctica to see for himself whether the much-touted evidence from environmentalists was true.
“Science clearly indicates risk,” he said. “Is it settled? No. In reality, science is never settled — that’s the nature of science. But it does indicate risk. [If] 97 doctors tell you here’s how we’re going to treat that cancer [and] there’s 3 percent of doctors that maybe tell you diet and exercise will beat that cancer, it’s not real clear conservative [policies] to go with the 3 [percent], and that’s about the numbers in climate science: It’s about 97 percent say it’s real, it’s human-caused; 3 percent say it’s not.”
Mr. Inglis had what he describes as a “spiritual epiphany” when speaking with climate scientists — of sharing a respect for the “God of creation.”
He returned from seeing melting Antarctica to introduce the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009, which, according to GovTrack.us, would tilt the U.S. taxation system away from income, specifically the Social Security payroll tax, to one that taxes carbon outputs.
Although the science on climate change is clear, Mr. Inglis said, he chose that approach because the economics are even clearer.
“It is a no-brainer: Change what you tax,” he said. “Get off of income, get on emissions. You can’t find a member of Congress that disagrees with that. Go look for one. The biggest subsidy of all is being able to dump into the trash dump of the sky without paying a tipping fee.”
Introducing a carbon tax, even a revenue-neutral tax, Mr. Inglis said, “was probably not the most politically savvy timing in the Great Recession.”
His bill stalled, and a year later, Mr. Inglis was sent packing back to the Palmetto State.
“It would be convenient if the science weren’t right,” he said. “If the science is right, that means we need to do something different. And change is threatening, particularly in the midst of the Great Recession. I mean the banking system was collapsing, our home values were plunging, jobs were at risk. And so it is really convenient to take one worry off the chain.”
Unlike President George H.W. Bush’s attempts to fight acid rain using a cap-and-trade system — a notion Mr. Inglis found to be the “wrong solution” — the sources of carbon pollution are far more manifold. Mr. Inglis said this allows for a conservative economic solution that embraces free enterprise and is light on regulation.
“A price signal, in my opinion, is much more powerful than a regulatory system,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons I voted against cap-and-trade, because it’s an inappropriate answer to the magnitude of the problem and the number of point sources [of pollution]. It was an enormous tax increase. It would have decimated American manufacturing.
“I wanted to propose this alternative,” he said of his 2009 bill. “Because I got this notion that if you’re going to oppose, you need to propose.”
Robert Kenner’s “Merchants of Doubt” points to Republican presidents leading on the environmental issue before it became a virtual nonstarter. Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency and introduced the Clean Water Act, and signed more environmental bills during his years than any ensuing commander in chief, Republican or Democrat. President Reagan took decisive action to combat the ozone hole over Antarctica.
In the film, Mr. Inglis proudly proclaims, “It’s conservative to conserve.”
Much of the problem with getting the conservation going, Mr. Inglis said, is not only the inconvenience factor but also a prevailing atmosphere of suspicion stoked by the likes of Glenn Beck, who has publicly excoriated Mr. Inglis for his views. The debate came to the fore when Mr. Beck appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel show and accused the former congressman of trying to destroy him.
On the episode, Mr. Inglis said, Mr. O’Reilly told his fellow talk show host that Mr. Inglis was “‘trying to destroy you, Glenn.’ So Glenn said, ‘Yeah, yeah, he’s made his career to destroy me.’ I’ve never seen him before,” Mr. Inglis said, “but he came up with this nutty stuff and made irrational [statements].”
Mr. Inglis has never been invited on either Mr. O’Reilly or Mr. Beck’s shows. However, he is quick to brush off their ire.
“When the snake has already bitten me, you don’t worry about the snake anymore because the venom is gone,” he said.
However, Mr. Beck’s words continue to haunt his appearances. He related a speech he gave in which a woman informed him that information from Mr. Beck’s show scared her.
“She said, ‘I’m afraid, aren’t you afraid?’ And I said, ‘No, ma’am, I’m aware, I’m not afraid.’ [She was] afraid of the wheels coming off the financial system, afraid of Obamacare, afraid of cap-and-trade, afraid of ‘the secret Muslim, nonwhite socialist in the White House,’ afraid of everything.
“I said that if Glenn Beck scares you, turn him off. I thought it was a helpful little suggestion,” Mr. Inglis said with a laugh.
Mr. Inglis is keenly aware that his own party can be a difficult audience for the message he wishes to spread on climate change. Like himself, he said, Republicans who publicly embrace the campaign may well be ostracized.
However, he can sense the message is getting through, that “the gears are moving.”
“You can see people following the economic argument, you can hear them understanding that free enterprise can solve this,” he said. “You just put all the costs down on all the fuels, eliminate all the subsides and the free enterprise system will deliver innovation. But then you call for questions [and] everybody sits on their hands, because if you raise your hand, out yourself, you know there’s going to be some loudmouth who jumps down your throat.
“And then they come to [me] afterwards and say quietly, ‘You know, I agree with what you’re saying; we’ve just got to find a way to get there.’ We as human beings don’t want to be cut off from our tribe. Because if you’re the lone wolf, you fall to the predator. That’s the huge challenge: It’s not the science, it’s the economics, it’s tribal affiliation.”
He said the political and economic environment offers an incredibly ripe opportunity for the conservative movement to lead on environmental policy and to so in a fashion that will outshine Democrats, the traditional guardians of the environmental movement.
“We have an opportunity to do here with climate what we failed to do on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare and present a coherent conservative solution to those things,” he said. “Because I’m convinced that the country counts on progressives to deliver sentiment and conservatives to deliver solutions. So far on climate, my party has been utterly failing.”
Mr. Inglis said his most important audience was, and remains, not the electorate but his family. It was his daughter, a fan of Mr. Kenner’s previous film, “Food, Inc.” that got him to embrace the notion of working on “Merchants of Doubt.”
“I told [Mr. Kenner], ‘I want to work with you on this film to help my polling numbers with my kids,’” Mr. Inglis said with a laugh. “Because I want to be cool by association.”