Letters from the West

Get government off my back and I can deal with climate change, say these conservatives

Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina Republican congressman and currently a climate change crusader, talks with University of Idaho fisheries science graduate student Matt Dunkle while on an October 2017 jet boat tour of Hell's Canyon.
Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina Republican congressman and currently a climate change crusader, talks with University of Idaho fisheries science graduate student Matt Dunkle while on an October 2017 jet boat tour of Hell's Canyon. rbarker@idahostatesman.com

A standing-room-only crowd, mostly students, greeted former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis last month at the University of Idaho College of Law.

“Who believes in climate change?” he asked. Nearly every hand went up. “How many think it’s human-caused?” Most kept their hands up.

The evangelical Christian country lawyer, who represented one of the reddest districts in the nation twice in the 1990s and 2000s, brought his message in particular for the ones who put their hands down or never raised them at all. As the Trump administration attempts to roll back climate policies and erases climate change information from federal websites, Inglis, with the zeal of the converted, has become one of the leading Republican voices for taking action on the problem.

But isn’t climate change about control? Aren’t those climate scientists just greedy people chasing government money? Isn’t Al Gore full of it with his movies full of doom?

That’s what Inglis used to think. But his kids and his wife urged him to look into the issue deeper after he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1998.

He went on several trips with scientists to Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef as a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. They showed him ice cores displaying an uptick in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, coinciding with the Industrial Revolution.

By unearthing fossil fuels created over millions of years and burning them over the course of the last 200 years, we’ve changed the chemistry of the atmosphere, he said. That’s not controversial, it’s measurable.

But what brought him around came on a more human level. A conversation with a scientist over lunch shifted to the Christian faith the two shared. Their common values showed Inglis that the scientist was studying climate change as a way to practice his faith in God and to responsibly protect God’s creation.

But it didn’t change Inglis’ mind about the role of government. With his group, RepublicEn.org, he continues to want government to get out of the way and let free enterprise solve the climate problem.

His inspiration is Milton Friedman, libertarian economist and advisor to President Ronald Reagan. Friedman never addressed the economics of climate change while he was alive. But Inglis and others have compared the issue to Friedman’s beliefs on how to handle the costs of other pollution forced upon the public.

The carbon that companies are putting into the atmosphere is pollution, Inglis said. The answer? Tax that pollution and create an incentive for industry to reduce it.

As Democrats pushed for a more regulatory mix of subsidies and a “cap and trade” system, Inglis introduced a carbon tax alternative to combat climate change.

Coming in the heart of the recession, it did not go well in his district. Despite his burnished credentials — a 93 score from the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating by the Christian Coalition of America, an A from the National Rifle Association — he was defeated handily by Trey Gowdy.

That’s why you don’t see many Republican politicians joining him on the climate change bandwagon.

Many conservatives also resist the gloom and doom approach and resent the tone of many scientists and climate advocates. Inglis’ advice to climate professors at the University of Idaho is to speak as equals.

“It’s important to approach (skeptics) with humility and not be condescending,” he said.

Idaho businesses have been dealing with climate change for at least the last decade. The earlier snowpack; the longer, fiercer fire seasons; the shifting energy markets affect farmers, the timber industry and companies that serve them like J.R. Simplot, Monsanto and Idaho Power.

You don’t see them pushing publicly for the Idaho Legislature to clearly recognize climate change and take action based on that knowledge. But it doesn’t mean they are ignoring the issue.

For one, they are joining with the state’s universities and community groups on a statewide conference: “Safeguarding Idaho’s Economy in a Changing Climate” Nov. 16 and 17. The sessions at the Boise State University Student Union will be live-streamed to the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and the Henry’s Fork Foundation office in Ashton.

Mostly, said one industry spokesman who did not want me to use their name, Idaho companies are investing in a future based on the science. In the energy world that means clean energy, battery research, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels and other alternatives to coal, oil and natural gas.

“We just want government to get out of our way,” the spokesman said.

My source pointed to the national climate assessment report released last week by the Trump administration despite the president’s and his senior officials’ skepticism about climate change and its cause.

“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century,” the report said. “For the warming over the last century, there is no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

The report was peer-reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences. Its authors, from across government and academia, say the average annual temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 and will continue to rise unless greenhouse gases are dramatically reduced.

There is a lot to fear in the report: more extreme heat, more flooding, rising sea levels, even more wildfires. But climate change will also bring economic opportunity as people develop new technologies to reduce greenhouse gases and help us adapt to the changing conditions.

Accepting the scientific reality allows us to turn our political debate to the solutions, from policies to unleash private enterprise to more regulatory approaches. If Al Gore takes the free enterprise route, Republicans should not begrudge him success,” Inglis said.

“If he makes a zillion dollars I’m for him,” Inglis said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker