WASHINGTON — Bob Inglis won a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for going public with his belief in the science of climate change, but it didn’t help his career in politics.
“It was my biggest heresy,” the former GOP congressman said of his admission he believed in global warming. It was a major part of the reason behind why the Upstate incumbent lost his primary to Trey Gowdy in 2010.
By all accounts, Inglis is a case study in what happens when an elected official abruptly turns and voices support for an issue that’s toxic for most Republicans.
Yet six years after suffering the sting of a hometown defeat, Inglis is trying to get other Republican lawmakers to walk the same politically perilous plank.
“If you’re not willing to lose your seat, you shouldn’t be in Congress,” said Inglis, who went on to win the Profile in Courage Award in 2015. “We did not elect followers. We want leaders.”
Inglis is now executive director of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit organization housed at George Mason University outside Washington in Virginia. Its stated purpose is “building public understanding of free enterprise and its promise to solve energy and climate challenges.”
His job is to be the figurehead for the group. His favorite media outlet is talk radio, which he called “the mouthpiece of orthodoxy.” On college campuses, he seeks out the Young Republican clubs. At law schools and business schools he holds court with the federalist and energy clubs. He travels around the country preaching the gospel of climate change and its repercussions on the environment, hoping to convert a constituency.
“Mostly I work in the heartland,” said Inglis, who is based at home in Greenville. “Politicians reflect us, they rarely lead us, and so we need to get it right by going into the districts, trying to generate support at home. Once we build that support at home, then members of Congress will feel comfortable leading.”
He also spends time in Washington, D.C., meeting one on one with Republican lawmakers who quietly believe in the science of climate change but aren’t yet comfortable making that position public.
Inglis said he is in active contact with roughly 10 congressional Republicans who fit into the category, but he wouldn’t name names. He did say a handful of the lawmakers hail from coal country, and that he is working with one member in particular on an event that would broach the subject as sensitively as possible.
The climate change debate has long been a partisan polarizing one, with Democrats adopting an alarmist tone and Republicans fearful of new regulations that would result in job losses — and new initiatives that would be costly to implement. Many Republicans simply do not believe global warming is real and chafe at Democrats who insist it is. Inglis argues there’s plenty for conservatives to embrace in taxing carbon emissions that offsets revenue with equal or greater cuts in corporate and personal income taxes. He also says conservatives should be excited about the opportunity to advance American innovation and competition with the solicitation of ideas for clean-energy solutions.
Inglis added that more and more young people are coming around to the idea, and they, too, could play a role in spurring on the older generation. Inglis himself was a skeptic until 2004, as he was preparing to run for his second stint in Congress.
“My son came to me; he had just turned 18, and he was voting for the first time,” Inglis recalled. “The oldest of our five kids. And he said to me, ‘Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re gonna clean up your act on the environment.’ ”
Still, the eight Republicans in the South Carolina congressional delegation are largely silent when it comes to the issue, with the exception perhaps of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has publicly urged his party to talk about the implications of ignoring environmental concerns.
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who represents coastal Charleston, has come out in opposition to offshore drilling. Last fall’s crippling flooding in the district also led many scientists and climate change advocates to warn local officials that this could be the start of a devastating trend for the Holy City.
“The hardest step of life is the first step,” Sanford said. “To his credit, Bob has been one of those who’ve been willing to take the first step in trying to awaken Republicans to the importance of conservation, to remembering Teddy Roosevelt’s notion of what it meant to be a Republican and the importance of recognizing that conservatism should apply to not just financial resources. It should apply to natural resources as well.”
It’s reason for Inglis to feel cautiously optimistic the tide could be turning in his home state.
“At the coast, people really are aware of the fragility,” Inglis said. “People want to come to the South Carolina coast because it’s so beautiful, and if we trash it, they’re gonna stop coming. And our state’s biggest industry will fail.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Inglis, your state is going to be the last state to get the memo,’ ” he continued. “And I try to push back. Things are starting to move, even in South Carolina. I understand we are deep red, but we have a deep-red case to make for this.”
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.