A conservative Republican tackles climate change

Rising sea levels, which scientists attribute to climate change, threaten homes along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, such as these in Nags Head in 2010.
Rising sea levels, which scientists attribute to climate change, threaten homes along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, such as these in Nags Head in 2010. JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis represented the Greenville, S.C., area for a dozen years in Congress before a 2010 primary loss derailed his political career. Part of his undoing: the Republican voiced his belief in climate change.

Inglis soon plunged whole-hog into the climate debate, founding the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University. The initiative declares climate change to be real and solvable, but not by government regulations.

It instead insists that eliminating all energy subsidies, including the ability of U.S. companies to release planet-warming emissions without paying for their environmental damage, will spur innovation.

His work on climate change won Inglis the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award last year. He appeared in the 2014 documentary “Merchants of Doubt” and was a visiting fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in 2012.

On Monday, he will be keynote speaker at the Carolinas Climate Resilience Conference, which meets in Charlotte through Wednesday. The conference aims to “foster real-world solutions to climate adaptation.”

From a recent interview:

Q: What’s the Energy and Enterprise Initiative about?

A: We’re essentially calling on conservatives to step forward with free-enterprise solutions to climate. Rather than regulating down the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we simply have the government put a price on emissions. That price signal would be sensed throughout the economy, with the result that hundreds of millions of consumers would pursue their own self interest. They would be seeking cleaner fuels because it would be in their economic interest to do so.

It’s something that conservative economists have talked about for quite a while, the idea of not regulating but attaching all the costs and revealing all the hidden costs of a product so the market can judge that product.

Q: What kind of traction are you getting with that argument?

A: We’ve surely got a ways to go, but what appears to some to be impossible will eventually become inevitable. There’s quite a bit of scientific consensus about climate change. There’s even more economic consensus about how to deal with the problem. It’s hard to find an economist who doesn’t think it’s a good idea to attach the hidden costs of emissions to all fuels. That’s why we feel this will become inevitable.

Q: What’s your sense of the temperature of the public and Congress on climate change?

A: Congress of course does exactly what we ask them to do. A lot of us like to complain that Congress doesn’t listen to us, but they listen very carefully. What they’ve heard us saying is that we’re most concerned about the economy and terrorism at the moment, and so that’s what they talk to us about. What we have to do is elevate the importance of action on climate and show that there’s a free-enterprise solution.

We happen to believe that part of the reason people put it low on their list is they don’t think it’s solvable. What we look to do is show that, no, something really can be done about this. It’s an incredible opportunity to light up the world with more energy, more mobility, more freedom because the free enterprise can deliver the fuels of the future if we simply fix the economics.

Q: How effective have billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Charlottean Jay Faison, the conservative clean-energy advocate, been in persuading climate change doubters?

A: Both are having an impact. I’m particularly excited about what Jay Faison is doing because I think he’s starting a conversation that will be a very important change. It’s sort of been stuck for awhile, and then along comes Jay Faison to get this unstuck with a conversation about clean energy.

Q: Donald Trump says climate change is a hoax. Is he raising the number of doubters?

A: I think he’s just affirming people’s doubts; I don’t know that he’s increasing the number of doubters. It’s important for leaders to do more than just reflect back to us our fears, and is surely incumbent upon them not to increase our fears, to amplify them, rather than to show us solutions. And that has sadly been lacking so far.

Q: How do local responses compare to state and federal action?

A: The best way to avoid the problem is through federal action because we need to get the whole world in on the solution, which is a truer and accountable costing of energy. But adjusting to climate change is best handled at the local level, and of course having an impact on the federal level efforts to head it off. When people start realizing just how much this is going to cost, to try to keep the seawater out of places like Charleston, S.C., they’ll engage more on what could avert the problem as well as how do we adjust to the problem.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender