Republicans learn the perils of being politically incorrect on climate change

Defeat came for Republican Rep. Bob Inglis because he slid to "Satan's side."

That's how South Carolina voters perceive Inglis' newfound belief in climate change, says the outgoing lawmaker, who lost his primary bid in June to tea party candidate, and now representative-elect, Trey Gowdy.

Inglis reflected on several blasphemies he committed in the eyes of voters in a departing interview last week, held in his congressional office. They ranged from opposing President George W. Bush's troop surge in Iraq to supporting his Troubled Asset Relief Program. But none of those, Inglis said, had as strong an impact as his assertions that atmospheric warming is a scientific certainty.

"The most enduring heresy was just saying that climate change was real," he said. "That was the one that was most damaging, I'm convinced."

"For many conservatives, it became the marker that you had crossed to Satan's side -- that you had left God and gone to Satan's side on climate change," he added, "because many evangelical Christians in our district would say that it's up to God to determine the length of Earth, and therefore, you are invading the province of God."

When Inglis packs up his wind turbine, a working display, in 100 Cannon House Office Building and departs Congress next month, the House will see perhaps its most outspoken Republican climate believer leave office. Others are going, too. That's raising difficult questions, with vague answers, about how many GOP members occupying the Capitol's southern wing accept global warming.

"It really is odd to realize ... that gee, there are not many of ya. It's so weird," Inglis said, calling it a "small fraternity" of Republican believers.

One of them is Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), a physicist who is retiring at year's end after serving eight terms in the House. Sometimes he reviews climate science with curious Republican colleagues. Usually, though, they take their cues from ideological sources.

"Of course there's no shortage of people out there who deny climate change, or any of its impacts, so they listen to those folks," Ehlers said in an interview. "They seem to respect my opinion, but when push comes to shove, they're going to go with folks who deny climate change."

Does money trump understanding of science?

That might rattle environmentalists. But politicians' opposition to climate change is not a political position taken for purposes of re-election in conservative districts, both Inglis and Ehlers say. Rather, it is about the money.

"How many know better and aren't saying anything?" Inglis asked of his colleagues who deny climate. "I think within the Republican conference there is a group that is inclined to place value in the science, and therefore to act on it. It's a minority in the conference. The majority, I think, view is it's not real, we don't need to do anything about it, it will harm our economy."

Liberal groups are warning of rising climate skepticism in Congress. The warnings follow midterm elections this month that rewarded a number of candidates who questioned the science behind global warming. ThinkProgress claims that half of the incoming Republican class have expressed doubt about warming, and it says 86 percent of those lawmakers are opposed to climate legislation that increases government revenue.

But others are more optimistic. David Hunter, a former climate aide to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and director of U.S. policy at the International Emissions Trading Association, believes energy and climate issues played a very small role in the elections. Inglis, with whom he and about a dozen other lawmakers traveled to Antarctica to study climate research, might be a special case.

"It may well have played a large role in Congressman Inglis' race," Hunter said. "Inglis was exceptional for his bravery in standing up for what he believes is right for climate change."

Before his two visits to Antarctica, Inglis "pooh-poohed" Al Gore and his ideas about climate change. His five children also played a large role in changing his mind, an admission that earned him criticism from constituents and talk radio.

"He was prepared to put aside any preconceptions," said Scott Heron, who studies coral health as a scientist contracted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


"That was something that was a little bit different from some members of Congress that I had a chance to meet," said Heron, who met Inglis on an Australian reef expedition. "I feel like the difference that Bob shows is he has his eyes open."

'Down the road, we're going to get there'

As Republican climate advocates depart Congress, so, too, is the notion that legislation should be shaped around reducing greenhouse gases. The new strategy by clean energy groups is to emphasize economic growth. They hope that will resonate with the increasingly conservative -- and perhaps skeptical -- Congress.

"It is very important that this is not climate legislation," Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said this week when outlining a strategy to increase clean energy. "We're not trying to stop bad things from happening with this legislation."

Inglis, for his part, continues to press for a carbon tax. He believes a $15 charge on each ton of carbon dioxide applied now, rising to $100 by 2040, will diminish oil and coal dependence while expanding nuclear and renewable fuels.

He voted against cap and trade last year because of all the carbon allowance "freebies" that were given to "connected" industries, and because he believes it would hurt manufacturers.

"We want to take petroleum [and] break its strategic importance. That's my goal," Inglis said.

That's not considered a weird idea, even among groups with Republican streaks. The Bipartisan Policy Center released a report this week on how to slash the deficit that suggested a carbon tax beginning at $23 a ton would "increase economic efficiency."

The analysis was overseen by former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and former White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin, who served under President Clinton. The carbon tax, however, was not included in the panel's final recommendations.

Inglis, too, believes the idea might not be ripe for approval -- especially under a Congress that will soon show him the door.

"I believe that we can get a revenue-neutral tax swap," he said, using his carefully selected name for a carbon tax. "Not out of this next Congress, and maybe not out of the next one. But down the road, we're going to get there."

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