The idea that South Carolina Republicans are at odds with climate change irks Bob Inglis.
The former Upstate Republican congressman sat at an outdoor picnic table in downtown Charleston recently and reflected with disdain and disbelief about why his party won't lead on an issue that he sees acutely affecting the state, particularly its 1st Congressional District on the coast.
"This district is on the front lines of climate change," Inglis said, rattling off the flooding, pervasive sea level rise and hurricane intensity experienced by Charleston residents.
"There's going to be a climate champion here at some point," he said, adding that this new champion will likely be a conservative.
South Carolina's 1st Congressional District is one of 29 districts identified by RepublicEn, a national nonprofit that advocates for conservative solutions to environmental issues. Each district is seen as uniquely positioned to produce a GOP incumbent by 2022 who is a climate change believer committed to tackling the issue.
There's a major hiccup to this idea, though: Climate change is currently not a hot topic on the campaign trail.
Republican Katie Arrington and Democrat Joe Cunningham are both vying to represent the Lowcountry in Washington after U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford lost the GOP primary to Arrington in June.
The major environmental issue in the race so far has been offshore drilling and seismic testing — not climate change.
Internal polling shared with The Post and Courier from Arrington's campaign found that the biggest issue facing the district right now is illegal immigration, followed by jobs and the economy. Climate change didn't even make the top 10.
"I am focused on the kitchen table issues most important to Lowcountry voters: creating jobs, cutting taxes, solving infrastructure problems, fixing health care and securing our border," Arrington said in a statement.
Asked about climate change last year, Arrington told Roll Call, "Climate change is something that has happened naturally, that’s why we are not living on ice anymore. It will go around and come around."
Pressed this week as to whether she believes climate change is caused by human activity, Arrington's campaign said she thinks climate change is real and that humans have some effect on climate. She also pledged to hold weekly round-table discussions with the public to hear from constituents in the district about finding solutions to flooding.
Cunningham, a construction law attorney and former ocean engineer, has cited infrastructure as the most critical issue facing the district, along with addressing health care. But his campaign website also calls climate change "the single greatest non-military threat to our nation."
"Studies show that if we continue do nothing to address climate change, it will lead to disastrous flooding in the Lowcountry over the next several decades. Tens of thousands of residents will lose their homes, surrounding home values will plummet and our economy will be severely damaged," he said in a statement.
The 1st District is South Carolina's most-watched congressional race, but it's not surprising the climate change hasn't loomed as a big deal, said Kyle Kondik, a managing editor of political scientist Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball website and newsletter at the University of Virginia.
Candidates veer away from climate change on the campaign trail, Kondik said, because it can be too abstract.
"It can sometimes be hard to tie climate change to specific notable environmental factors in a given community," Kondik said. "If you can't connect those dots, it makes the argument for action harder."
Candidates in other coastal districts have found a way.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo is a 38-year-old Republican who represents Florida's 26th Congressional District, which includes the Florida Keys, the Everglades and southwest Miami-Dade County.
Curbelo has openly criticized the GOP's denial of climate change and also co-founded the congressional Climate Solutions Caucus. He recently won his GOP primary.
"A crucial step in the right direction is moving past the debate of whether or not climate change is real and towards solutions that will mitigate its detrimental effect on our communities," Curbelo said on his website.
Inglis said climate change could be an issue crucial to the political future of the GOP.
"We know that young conservatives are with us," he said. "It's their parents and grandparents that are harder to reach."
Earlier this year, more than 20 college Republican clubs, including Clemson University's College Republicans, joined bipartisan Students for Carbon Dividends to urge Congress — and especially Republicans — to act on climate change. It was the first time College Republican groups publicly supported a national climate solution.
Their plan? A carbon tax.
Imposing a fee on users of fossil fuels when they release harmful gases into the Earth's atmosphere is something that Inglis pushes when he talks to college students. He also acknowledges it's not going to happen soon.
A week before Curbelo filed a carbon tax bill in July, the House passed a resolution calling such a tax detrimental to the economy. Curbelo's bill is not expected to go anywhere.
"It's not the dominant tune playing on conservative radio right now," Inglis said. "But believe it or not, politicians typically follow. They don't lead. Once we have the constituents making themselves visible, then they'll lead."
At a Tuesday event hosted by The Citadel Republican Society, Inglis tried to galvanize more than 50 cadets.
Hudson DeLoach, a freshman from Beaufort, was in the audience. He said he believes in climate change.
"There is a natural component, but that natural component cannot account for everything that's happening," he said. "And most young Americans who identify as Republicans, we don't see ourselves as that older generation that people think of when they think about the Republican Party."
A poll was taken at the beginning of the talk: 95 percent of the cadets in the room identified as Republicans, and 60 percent said they were not persuaded that climate change is real and mostly caused by emissions from human activities.
But the first word on the screen when conservative cadets were asked about the impact of climate change? "Bad."