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Former Republican Rep. discusses climate change conversion

Although politicians often find it difficult to break the party line, former U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican, challenged his party's stance on climate change.

Inglis, Trinity '81, spoke at the School of Law Thursday afternoon about how Republican free enterprise principles can conquer climate change. After the talk, Inglis co-hosted a discussion with Jonas Monast, director of the climate and energy program in the Nicholas School of the Environment, on the role of the government in combating climate change. Drawing on his experiences as the congressman for South Carolina's fourth district, Inglis explored the difficulty of convincing his fellow Republicans to back climate change reform efforts. 

“Politicians fear the people they represent," Inglis said. "We get fearful politicians that are terribly frightened of the people they represent, who are themselves frightened by globalization and the pace of cultural change. There is a cycle of fear.”

Inglis explained how he overcame this fear of backlash to begin supporting climate change efforts, a move that he said contributed to his loss in a primary election in 2010. In addition to the scientific evidence behind climate change, an emotional plea from his son helped Inglis change his position.

“Our son came to me and told me, ‘Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you have to clean up your act on the environment,’” Inglis said in an interview with The Chronicle prior to the talk.

The last step in Inglis’ conversion into an advocate for climate change legislation was what he described as a “spiritual awakening.” While visiting Australia with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, he met Scott Heron—a scientist who “shared his worldview.” Inglis said he admired how Heron, an environmental scientist, openly expressed his faith.

“He told me about conservation changes he has made in his life in order to love God and to love people," Inglis said in the interview. "I found that really inspiring. I wanted to be like Scott, and so I came home and I introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009."

The bill, which was a revenue-neutral tax on companies that had high carbon emissions, drew harsh criticism from other party members.

Inglis said he believes Republicans are unlikely to completely reverse their stance on climate change, because doing so would be politically untenable. Instead, a strategy of allowing Republicans to join “the crowd on the sides as it is moving toward a solution” would be more effective, Inglis said.

Such a strategy would require appealing to Republican values such as free enterprise, Inglis said. He added that taxing companies for their emissions would be an effective means of curbing the effects of climate change. 

“What we have is an environmental problem that is really the result of a market failure, and if we fix that market failure, the problem will take care of itself,” Inglis said.

Inglis currently runs RepublicEn, a non-profit based at George Mason University that aims to mobilize conservatives who support climate change legislation, many of whom may feel isolated. 

In the talk, Inglis firmly expressed his belief that applying free market principles has tremendous potential for opportunity.

“We are going to see a revolution in energy that rivals the revolution in the tech world,” he said.

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