On a soggy evening in Tallahassee, Florida, Bob Inglis stood before three dozen college Republicans and urged them to support what he calls his “greatest heresy” as a congressman: a tax on carbon emissions.
Inglis blames his efforts to combat global warming for the intra-Republican challenge that cost him his South Carolina congressional seat in 2010. Since the loss, he has traveled the nation making the case to students and grassroots Republican activists that a carbon tax is both good policy and politics.
“This really is a conservative position,” Inglis told the classroom of students at Florida State University last month. “An energy and climate answer might not just unite the Republican Party, but it also allows us to get some independents and progressives to support us as well.”
Inglis advocates a specific answer: a carbon tax, which would apply to the carbon-dioxide emissions from coal, oil or natural gas. He says the revenues should be used to offset cuts in other taxes. A tax would let the market develop the best way to cut emissions, and replace regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and costly energy subsidies, he said.
“I don’t want Al Gore to run my life,” he said, as his right eyebrow shot skyward over rimless glasses and a lopsided smile indicated he was joking. While he said he respects the former vice president, he opposes what he dubs “big government” regulations and subsidies that environmentalists such as Gore say are necessary.
Those kind of knowing lines are matched with references to natural law, scripture passages and market economics. Together they establish his conservative bona fides. Still, his proposition is no easy sell to his fellow Republicans.
All but eight Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a measure aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2009; the so-called cap-and-trade measure never came up for a vote in the Senate. Inglis, who was among those voting no, proposed a counteroffer of a carbon tax with a starting price of $15 a ton. It drew just two co-sponsors in the House. One was a Democrat.
That vote did have an impact on his career. Because of Inglis’ “heresies” on climate change, immigration and the bank bailout of 2008, he drew four challengers in a Republican primary in 2010. And he was defeated by Trey Gowdy in a run-off. Once elected, Gowdy signed a pledge to oppose a “climate tax.” That may not preclude the kind of tax swap Inglis is proposing.
“The problem, in a way, is that I’m the worst commercial for what I am talking about,” Inglis, a 53-year-old lawyer, said in an interview, citing that 2010 primary upset.
After he left Congress, the Republican House majority worked to undermine measures to deal with climate change in the past two years, cutting federal funding to study it and criticizing the EPA’s rules to curb greenhouse gases. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney mocked President Barack Obama at his party convention this year for pledging to halt the rise of the oceans, which is tied to global warming.
“It’s not going anywhere,” Texas Republican Joe Barton, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, when asked about Inglis and the carbon tax. “We agree that carbon-dioxide levels are going up. What we don’t agree on is that carbon-dioxide levels are going up because of man.”
Outside analysts say Republican voters may be more open to Inglis’s proposal than his former colleagues in Congress.
“Many Republicans are much more moderate in their views,” Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at Virginia’s George Mason University, said in an interview. “Depending on the trade-off, you see more or less support” for a carbon tax, he said.
Carbon-dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution have led to a warming of the Earth’s temperature over the past 50 years, threatening to cause extreme weather, drought and coastal flooding, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
October was the 332nd consecutive month in which global temperatures exceeded the 20th century average, according to U.S. government data.
The majority of voters in different regions, old or young, rich or poor, accept the scientific consensus that man-made activity is warming the planet, according to a Bloomberg National Poll in September. Those voters most skeptical were affiliated with the Republican Party, as only 26 percent agreed that warming is happening because of human activity.
“Party affiliation is the single most important way to expect divergences” in views about climate change and policies to address it, said Barry Rabe, who conducted polling on these issues for the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. “You still see significant differences between Republicans and Democrats on these issues.”
With the support of groups such as the Rockefeller Family foundation, Inglis established the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at Virginia’s George Mason University in July. At the moment Inglis has one aide, 27-year-old policy maven, photographer, youth envoy and straight man Alex Bozmoski.
The two have been traveling this year to conservative colleges, Federalist Society clubs at law schools and the American Legion’s Boys State program, which teaches high-school students about the way government works. The reception hasn’t always been warm.
Former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert shared the stage with Inglis at Wheaton College in Illinois, a self-described Christian school.
“If we want to hobble an economy, all we need to do is enact these kind of policies,” Hastert said. “I don’t trust Congress -- and I was there -- or any other legislative body to say that we are going to tax your energy, and take it away from your income tax,” Hastert said.
Inglis dubs this the “Trojan Horse” critique, and it’s one he hears often from the conservatives he meets. Republicans don’t expect a new tax on carbon to be refunded, and instead expect it will be used to finance government spending they deem wasteful.
There are other critiques.
In Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, he debated economics professor Randall Holcombe, who said government policy, whether tax or regulation, is not the way to tackle the issue. “If climate change makes Florida less habitable, well, people are mobile,” he said. “They can move up to Siberia and bask in the sunshine.”
Among some religious conservatives, trying to avert global warming is seen as man intervening in the providence of God. It’s also an attack on a suburban and rural lifestyle embodied by many Republican voters. “This is a deeper attack on a way of life,” Inglis said.
Inglis treads lightly in talking with these audiences, in part because he knows where they are coming from. In the first of his two tenures in Congress, Inglis said he mocked the threat of global warming. Two visits with scientists in Antarctica and pressure from his son got him to change when he ran in 2004 to reclaim his old seat in the House.
The carbon tax is Inglis’ stab at coming up with a Republican approach to handling the issue. In effect, producers of coal, gas and other fossil fuels would pay a tax based on an estimate of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted when the fuel is used. Therefore, coal would become more expensive than wind power. Natural gas would be somewhere between the two.
By raising the prices for coal and gasoline, it would induce consumers to search out energy-efficient or clean-energy alternatives, proponents say. The government doesn’t need to mandate which fuels are used or force changes at power plants or in automobiles.
It’s not a message Inglis expects to gain support during the current U.S. budget negotiations. It might take shape next year, or perhaps in 2015 or 2016 as fears about the federal deficit mount, he predicts. In the meantime, he will be making his case to any Republican audience that will have him.
“Once you’re branded a heretic you might as well go out on the street and proclaim it,” he said.