Former Republican Congressman Bob Inglis from South Carolina recently made a stop in the state of Utah in his effort to convince his fellow Republicans about the urgency of climate change. I heard him speak at BYU to the College Republicans. It was a most unusual and inspiring experience.
Inglis described his transition from a climate skeptic to a position of genuine concern once he was in office and had an opportunity to investigate many of the facts directly. Coming from a district as red as Utah Valley and from a political persuasion as genuinely conservative as most Republicans in Utah, he described how his green positions eventually got him bumped out of office by the Tea Party. I have read about the damage done by think tanks in spreading misinformation about climate change and how that information is repeated over and over again by politicians (for example, check this out), but I have usually heard this information from Democrats or academics, but not necessarily from conservatives. He was as frank and insistent as anyone I have heard about the damage being done in this country by Big Oil’s funding of think tanks and the Koch Brothers and was embarrassed that the Republicans have wasted so much time believing in their missives. He was particularly adamant that Republicans had essentially evaded the problem altogether by claiming conspiracies or by denying the evidence and had allowed Democrats to be the only ones to put potential solutions on the table. At one point he offered an interesting psychoanalysis of Republican denial of climate change. He said that Republicans on the one hand feel a strong Christian mandate to be good stewards of the environment but on the other hand can’t see their way to solving the problem using the methods proposed by the Democrats, so in their inaction, they feel anger that eventually just lashes out as denial of the problem. A provocative theory. I wonder what our readers think of this. Is there an environmental conscience within each of us? Do religious conservatives need to see viable economic solutions that suit their political philosophy before they are willing to believe climate change is a real problem? Why isn’t empirical evidence enough?
Inglis made it clear that he is not a fan of most Democratic policy on the environment. He doesn’t like cap and trade and other Democratic solutions and instead believes that a free market was the solution. However, he stressed that it had to be a truly free market, one in which companies produced products with no unfair advantages over any other and in which they took what he called “biblical accountability” for all their costs downwind and downstream that were incurred by others in the process. Capitalism historically has, he noted, privatized profit while socializing costs, essentially passing on the true costs of production to neighbors and future generations in the form of decreased public and environmental health. I thought his term “biblical accountability” quite compelling, something I would like to hear more of when I hear defenses of the market, for surely without a profound ethos of care, a free market is an excuse for exploitation. (A side note: he wondered out loud to me if Mormon environmentalists were ostracized by their fellow believers. He felt he had been by his own Christian community. I told him I never had felt ostracized.) He was particularly interested in a tax swap whereby carbon could be taxed and other taxes relieved, essentially so that a carbon tax could serve its purpose of reducing carbon emissions without growing the government. You can learn more about this at his company’s website. In the end, his worry was that the Republicans will not make themselves a viable or sustainable party of the future if they don’t make the environment a serious consideration in their platform.
I don’t share this information because I necessarily agree with his positions, but because of his compelling claim that conservatives need to get in the game of addressing climate change and the environment and to take science more seriously. He suggested that they simply have not yet entered the marketplace of ideas when it comes to the environment and that their attitude needs to be one of offering solutions rather than one of denying the reality of environmental problems. I personally welcome a conservative environmentalism as a very important and needed development. The best ideas and the best solutions can only emerge in a context of real dialogue, honest deliberation, and earnest concern for all of society and for future generations. I hope conservatives will take his message to heart and consider what they can offer to find solutions to the problems of climate change, species extinction, and our environmental degradation of watersheds, air quality, and the livelihoods of the most poor.