Bob Inglis is a former Congressman from the state of South Carolina. He is also the founder of RepublicEn, a conservative organization dedicated to promoting conservative solutions for climate change. Inglis and RepublicEn propose a revenue neutral carbon tax that would remove income tax from the tax code, and replace it with a tax on carbon dioxide emission. The plan also includes a border adjustable tax that would make other countries importing into the U.S. pay for the carbon used in their production as well. Below is an interview with Inglis regarding conservative action on climate change.
How did we get this point where climate change is a left versus right issue?
Well I think it comes down to the fact that the environmental left has done a very good job of developing a business model that raises money from lots of progressive mamas and papas, and so they sort of stuck with that model. So what they do is tell their people on their mailing lists that these awful conservatives are trying to destroy the earth, and so it works. They raise money off of it, but now they’re sort of stuck in that model. It’s also true on the right too, to tell you the truth. You know, it’s also true of Heritage Action, for example. There are a lot of people who would say Heritage was a better think-tank before they started Heritage Action, and that when they started Heritage Action they started writing these screaming letters that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and American Socialist. And once you write that first letter, you’ve got to write another one that’s a little bit more extreme and then another one and another one and now you’re leaving solution-ville and getting over here in wacko world, you know? And so, it happened to them, it happens on the right, and it surely is happening on the environmental left. They called my friend Rob Portman, for example, the League of Conservation Voters did, one of the “Dirty Dozen,” and Rob is one of the most thoughtful, capable members of the U.S. Senate, but that’s their business model.
Can you talk more about your specific proposal for a conservative solution to climate change?
We propose to attach all costs to all fuels and eliminate all subsidies for all fuels, allowing the free enterprise system to deliver innovation at the demand of consumers, who we trust to act in enlightened self-interest. Once the consumer, in a transparent marketplace, sees the true cost of energy, with all the externalities now attached, the consumer will make really good choices without the government picking winners and losers, without the government telling them how to live their lives, and just because of the powerful price signal that would be issued. And that’s the most efficient way to deal with climate change.
Do you believe that the heavy regulatory measures that have been proposed and implemented by the environmental left have actually hindered progress towards fixing climate change, and, if so, how?
Ethanol I think is a good example of how a well-intentioned mandate results in environmental harm and budgetary harm. It also shows a political challenge because there’s a constituency developed around ethanol now, it’s corn growers. That’s what we’re trying to avoid is that kind of government picking a winner, saying “this is the technology we like.” We’d rather just say “no, the government doesn’t have a position on that.” The government should be saying “we’re the honest cop on the beat; all costs in and all subsidies out.” Let technology compete on an even level and we think that it’s going to happen, and that we’ll see clean energy do quite well in that competition.
Your proposed plan includes a revenue neutral carbon tax. Where would that carbon tax come from and how do we determine the price?
The carbon tax would be applied presumably at the mine and at the pipeline. So it would be administratively simple at the IRS to impose the tax. Then there would be corresponding tax cuts on income, or a dividend of the carbon tax money back to taxpayers. The tax would be applied to imports in the same way as if those goods had been made in America. That last part, the border adjustment, would cause China and India to follow our lead and the rest of the world as well to follow our lead.
Is it more important for us to be convincing conservatives on climate change, or to convince the left to adopt more rational environmental policies than they have in the past?
Without a doubt conservatives in America, because nothing is going to happen without conservatives in America entering the competition of ideas.
Is there any pushback from the left for adopting your type of environmental reform? Why haven’t they tried adopting something like this that might get their opponents to support climate action? What is standing in their way of supporting a plan like yours?
Probably almost nothing. Al Gore’s been for the same thing for almost 30 years. Washington state, they made a mistake, the environmental left did, in not supporting a carbon tax. It was a state carbon tax but I think they’ve learned from that mistake and it also lacked a border adjustment because if you’re a state initiative, you can’t do a border adjustment. So I think what they learned was we need to not make the perfect enemy the good. But they also, as well as the rest of us learned, is that if you’re going to do it you have to do the border adjustment, because without the border adjustment it’s really hard to justify this.
What people and what states would feel the heaviest burden from the extra cost that would come with the carbon tax the most?
Anybody within a coal intensive state. Indiana stands out in my mind as one that would most feel the price signal from a price on carbon dioxide because they’re running on 97 percent coal. Somewhere like Washington state wouldn’t even notice it because there’s so much hydropower. And South Carolina, and I’m going to guess Georgia because I think Georgia’s power mix is probably about the same, which is 50 percent nuclear like we are in South Carolina, it would be in the mid-range.
You believe that a lot of conservatives reject climate change initiatives for primarily political or economic reasons. But how do you address those people out there who still simply just do not believe in the science of climate change?
If they honestly just don’t want to buy the science at all, and it isn’t an issue of solution aversion or an issue of feeling disrespected by the environmental left, and it’s just that they don’t buy it all, I would say that still, you want to do this tax swap. We have an opportunity here to un-tax income and put the tax on something else. Even if you think climate change is nonsense, you still want to do this tax swap. By un-taxing income, you’re giving an incentive to work and invest. So even if climate change turns out to be something that we didn’t need to worry about, well, what’s it harmed you? You’ve got a better economy, you’ve removed a disincentive to work and invest. So listen to Art Laffer, that’s what I would say. Don’t listen to me, listen to Art Laffer. That’s what he would say to do, is un-tax income whenever you get a chance. Put the tax on something else.
You’ve been working with climate change initiatives for a while, and with RepublicEn specifically since around 2011. Since that time, have you seen any changes in attitude from people on the right regarding climate action?
I think we’re seeing an increase in interest, and oddly I think it has something to do with President Trump. His withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord made it so that people realized that, “You mean we’re gonna do nothing about climate change? Nothing at all?” It’s a very naked feeling, you know. George Bush told us after 9/11 to go shop, which wasn’t bad advice, when you think about it, because he’s saying basically “Don’t give into the terrorists. Go out there and live your life. Don’t give in” The reason we were able to go shop is because we knew there were really wonderful people in the government that were that were focused 24/7 who were focused on securing our safety. They were really focused. So now what we’re hearing is that nobody’s working on climate change, and that’s actually driving people our way because they’re thinking “I want somebody thinking about climate change. Somebody really needs to be working on this.” So in a strange sort of way he may have helped us.
Are there any government officials at the federal level who are on the right and who support some sort of reform for climate action?
Rex Tillerson is probably the most high-profile. In fact, as CEO of ExxonMobil, he advocated for exactly what we were for at RepublicEn, as recently as his speech in October of 2016 as CEO. And what’s interesting is Darren Woods, his successor as CEO at ExxonMobil, in his very first blog post, reiterated the company’s support. To be real blunt, the reason is that if you put a price on carbon dioxide, natural gas becomes even more attractive, and it currently is compared to coal. Fracking has made it so that the prices of natural gas have been brought down and, for example, in my state of South Carolina, we have six coal fire plants that converted or are in the process of converting to natural gas. That’s the result of fracking. It proves the point that we’re making about a price signal. So Rex Tillerson is for a price on carbon dioxide, or was at ExxonMobil, and I hope he’s saying the same things in cabinet meetings.
If we implement the carbon tax, what does our national energy infrastructure look like? What is a viable option for cleaner energy for a nation as large as the U.S.?
We need to power the grid and to back up the intermittency of renewables. As batteries get better, that’s probably going to be one of the means by which it happens. And as solar efficiency goes up, that’s also going to be one of the means by which it happens. We’ve got to power our lives. We need to make sure it’s reliable power, so I happen to think one of the great ways is by nuclear power. I also like wind fine, I like solar fine. We don’t want to turn on the switch and have nothing come out, but there’s a way to make sure we keep a reliable grid. We think that the carbon tax is going to provide a lot of innovation here in America, and surely around the world. In dark places of the world where they don’t have any energy right now at night, I think they’re going to be developing distributed energy systems and micro-grids that use solar batteries, and if we play our cards right, we’ll be selling in those systems and creating wealth and jobs here.
This interview was condensed and featured in the Winter 2017 edition of The Arch Conservative in print.
—Sydney North is a senior studying journalism and political science. She is Assistant Editor of The Arch Conservative.