Photo by Price Atkinson

Bob Inglis, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina, is still considered something of an outlier: a Republican climate activist. In 2010, he lost his run for re-election because he began advocating for a carbon tax. But Inglis, the founder of RepublicEn, a nonprofit that supports free-market climate solutions, has been beating a drum historically unheard of in his party ever since. And at last, something remarkable is happening, he says. Fellow Republicans are agreeing with him.

Yet the center of political debate over climate policy these days — the Green New Deal — appears to be driving the parties as far apart as ever. On the one hand, you have Democrats standing behind what they describe as essential goals for clean energy and a sustainable future. On the other, you have Republicans characterizing the plan as a left-wing manifesto so impossibly broad and expensive as to be utterly ridiculous.  

Inglis certainly will weigh in on the issue at the Crosscut Festival on Saturday, May 4. The former congressman will join former Washington gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant, a Republican, and Hilary Franz, the state's commissioner for public lands and a Democrat, in a discussion titled Bridging the Partisan Divide Through Environmental Policy

In a preview of that discussion, we asked Inglis about the political divide, the work he does and the Green New Deal — and whether it is helping or hurting the climate debate.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Historically, there has been this really stark dividing line between Republicans and Democrats on climate change. Yet I’m seeing a lot of different polls now suggesting that there is some shift. [Two-thirds of Republicans now acknowledge that climate change is real]. I’m curious — you’ve been doing this work for a while. What do you think? Is the tide turning?

Yes, I think it is a significant shift. That’s probably best encapsulated by the headline from the Republican side of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Feb. 6: “Republicans are focused on pragmatic solutions to climate change.” And that was followed the next day by an op-ed by Greg Walden, Fred Upton, and John Shimkus, the three leading Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The lead sentence is something like, “Climate change is real and we’re focused on solutions.” And then the next week, Frank Lucas, who’s the ranking Republican on the House Science Committee, called as a Republican witness a scientist who actually says that climate change is real. These are remarkable, remarkable developments.

I think there are three things going on. One is the economy is better, and when the economy is better, people can think longer term. Second, there are a lot more “eco-right” groups, as we call ourselves at Eco-right is a balance to the environmental left that exists today that did not exist in 2010 [when he lost the election].

All the groups that you now have heard of — RepublicEn, R Street Institute, Niskanen Center, Alliance for Market Solutions, Climate Leadership Council or even Citizens’ Climate Lobby — none of those existed in the ’10 cycle. They’re speaking the language of conservatism when discussing climate change. That’s the second difference. Now there’s this group of folks on the right who are ready to enter the competition of ideas — and that’s encouraging elected officials.

And then the third difference is we’ve all had more experiences with climate change. That’s what’s really driving this. An example there is Hurricane Florence dropping 50 percent more rain than it would have, but for climate change. Hurricane Harvey, 30 percent more. Wildfires in California.

These things have a way of focusing the mind. People are now realizing it isn’t something that is decades away. It’s here and now. And if it’s here and now, then it goes up our salience meter. We’re now aware of this and need to pay attention to it.

Part of your work over the past decade has been going to conservative groups of people in a variety of settings and having these conversations. I wonder if the reaction you’ve been getting from your audiences has changed too?

Yeah. There’s more openness now. Still, there are some hard rock disputers of the climate science out there. I don’t underestimate that, the persistence of that problem. It’s real and it will be very persistent. These people have a very developed worldview. They’ve staked out a position. They’ve heard the evidence of climate change and they are ready to dismiss it.

But when it finally comes up and bites you.… You can believe that you are the bulletproof kid that isn’t gonna get mouth cancer from doing chewing tobacco. But once you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re probably going to stop dipping snuff. For most people, when they start having real impacts in their own lives, that’s when they have to reexamine those views.

So the conversation around climate policy right now is the Green New Deal. What do you think of the Green New Deal? First take?

I’m very grateful for the sentiment. I think the solution is overwrought. The Green New Deal is an entire party platform, which is impossible to enact as legislation. Any one of the elements of the Green New Deal could consume a couple of Congresses — universal basic income, for example. Climate is the one that we’ve got to act on. And so in that way, I really appreciate that the Green New Deal has a sense of urgency of acting on climate change. So please, can we break that out and come back later to universal basic income?  [If it had] climate as the focus, then we might have a chance of getting it done.

In terms of the climate change part of it, though, do you feel like it’s helping the conversation around climate action, or hurting it in some way, regarding these partisan divides?

I think it may be helping because it’s causing conservatives to realize that we really do need to come forward with something that sort of matches the sentiment with a solution. And so in that way it may be helpful.

The way that it could be harmful is if the left decides, “Oh yeah, we’ve got to have the entire party platform enacted in a single bill.” But if it just becomes apparent to enough Democrats that, “Yeah, we got it, appreciate the sentiment; now let’s work on practical solutions, let’s get this done” — as long as those voices prevail in the Democratic Party, then I think that there will be creative pressure on Republicans to say, “OK, yes, what would work?”

It does seem like some people are saying, “Hey, this is actually an opportunity for Republicans to propose a policy that aligns with their values, because the Green New Deal creates a sense of urgency without having a strong policy prescription.”

Yeah. It is a nonbinding resolution, which is also sort of crazy — to spend a great deal of time discussing a nonbinding resolution! But I think the truth is that the country will take something over nothing, when we decide we’ve got a problem. That’s how enthusiasm for the Green New Deal will actually help conservatives to recognize the importance of entering the competition of new ideas.

Even today, there’s more evidence of this. There was a piece in the Washington Post from Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Joe Manchin — isn’t that interesting? — senators from West Virginia and Alaska saying climate change is real and we need to do something about it. Of course, each of them wants to sell every drop of oil and every lump of coal from their state. But you can tell it’s a change in the discussion, when those two are willing to say it’s real. That’s a change.

Meanwhile, you’re still seeing these loud partisan debates. There are some Republicans saying, “This is ridiculous. This is going to cost trillions of dollars.” Some people fear that this attacking posture is creating further division. What do you think about that?

I think at some point the extremes will become caricatures of themselves. I think that’s what we’re in the process of. The Green New Deal supporters will end up looking like caricatures, and the people who are disputing the need to act on climate will look like caricatures. And somewhere between those two will be reasonable people who are focused on a solution — and who are supported by businesses who have a future in innovation coming to their aid. That will help drive things along.

The old adage in Washington is, “Don’t ever try to kill an industry, because they’ll fight like heck to stay alive.” The challenge here with carbon pricing is it pretty much kills coal. We’ve got to expect that they’re gonna fight like heck.

Do you see carbon pricing, then, as being what will unite both sides of the aisle on climate?

Yes. Here’s an anecdote. Art Laffer, Reagan’s economics adviser, is a neighbor of Al Gore in Nashville, Tennessee. I know that Art went over to Al’s house and they talked it through and came to the conclusion that a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax works for both of them. For very different reasons! Art because he desperately wants to untax income — and put a tax on anything else. “CO2 will do,” he says. And Al, because he desperately wants to reduce emissions.

I tell many conservative audiences that Al Gore and Art Laffer agree! Isn’t it possible, therefore, that we could bring America together and lead the world to a solution? Because it really does work for both progressives and conservatives, as long as we’re focused on solving the problem.

If you’re trying not to solve the problem, if you want to keep coal in business, if that’s your goal, then you don’t want to hear any of this; you can’t hear any of it because your ears are stopped. But for the rest of us who don’t have a dog in that fight, and want to watch energy innovation happen and participate in it, then wow, we’ve got an incredible opportunity.  

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