The US Republican spreading the conservative case for acting on climate change

Former Republican congressman Bob Inglis knows something about the cost of climate change – it included his job.

A conservative from South Carolina’s Republican heartland, he initially thought – assumed – the science of climate change was nonsense.

“I didn’t really know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it and, as I represented one of the most conservative districts in the most conservative states in America, that was really the end of the inquiry,” he says.

But when he decided to run again for Congress in 2004, five years after vacating his seat, his son Robert told him he had to “clean up his act on the environment”, so he joined the House of Representatives science committee and joined fact-finding trips to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef.

On the former, he was shown ice core records that illustrated global warming. On the latter, he saw coral bleaching and formed a bond with Townsville oceanographer Scott Heron that triggered what Mr Inglis, a devout Christian, describes as a “spiritual awakening”.

He went home and introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009. It sank, and in 2010 Mr Inglis lost preselection amid a Tea Party-led backlash.

Undeterred, he helped create RepublicEN, a group of conservatives and libertarians committed to free-enterprise solutions to climate change.

It is a push that is gaining some momentum. George Schultz and James Baker, both former Republican secretaries of state and Treasury secretaries, last week wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal setting out the case for a “conservative answer for climate change” using a similar model to that proposed by Inglis. It came as a group of prominent Republicans and business leaders met with senior White House advisors to pitch the idea.

It would abolish Barack Obama’s clean power regulations but – on the grounds that it is an inherently conservative position to guard against risk –replace it with a carbon tax intended to free companies to find the most efficient way to cut emissions. Goods from countries without a carbon tax would be hit with an equivalent charge at the border. All revenue would be returned to the public in quarterly dividend payments.

The plan has the support of senior figures including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who tweeted that it would strengthen the economy, though others noted that it would struggle to win a single vote from Republicans in Congress.

Mr Inglis believes change can come through connecting with the Republican heartland. “We know that politicians typically follow, so we need to show them a group they can follow,” he says.

The message that he will be spreading in public events and meetings in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne this month, on a trip sponsored by the Australia Institute, is that conservatives are uniquely positioned to address this problem.

Mr Inglis believes much of the climate scepticism among conservatives is not a response to the science itself, but a reaction to the solutions being proposed and the progressive language they are couched in.

“What conservatives sometimes see is, ‘The godless scientists got together with the UN bureaucrats with the blue helmets on, they linked in the Wall Street traders, and they came up with a hopelessly complicated system called cap-and-trade,’ ” he says.

“There’s nothing attractive in that paragraph to a conservative. So they say: ‘Give me a solution that sounds like it fits with my values.’

“We tell them … ‘you know the answer and it’s the same answer that you would apply in business’. Internalise the negative externalities and then the free-enterprise system will solve this with innovation faster than government mandates or regulations can ever imagine.”

The result, he says, would be a cleaner world with “more energy, more mobility, more freedom”.

Mr Inglis is not a fan of Donald Trump, but – the President’s criticism of the Paris climate deal and 2012 tweet about global warming being a Chinese hoax notwithstanding – believes there is a chance he could be attracted to the carbon tax plan given it fits with his America-first approach.

Imagine Mr Trump saying: “The US is going to move first … Sue us in the World Trade Organisation if you want to, China, but after you lose you can keep on paying the carbon tax on entry on your goods into the United States – or you can go back and impose the same carbon tax and bring the money to Beijing rather than Washington. But make your own decision because we’d be happy to keep taking your money.”

A US Treasury Department report published last month predicted that dividends from the carbon tax model would increase the income of about 70 per cent of Americans.

While in Australia, Inglis is interested in exploring whether coal is facing a similar future to textiles in his home state. The once dominant industry died out following changes in technology – in that case, automation – and policy.

“To think we can hold onto some existing industry in the face of technological and/or policy changes is a little like thinking we can hold onto buggy manufacturing,” Mr Inglis says.

“That is the nature of the free enterprise system. You cannot hold onto what you’ve got now. You’ve got to be constantly ready to move on to the next.”

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