During the first six years Bob Inglis served in Congress, in the 1990s, he was a party-line Republican who scoffed at those who claimed the Earth’s climate was changing as a result of human activity.
“If Al Gore was for it, I knew I should be against it,” he says, referring to the vice president at the time, who has been an outspoken environmental activist. “I focused on climate change only to dismiss it” as an issue that merited attention.
In 2004, when Inglis sought to claim his old South Carolina seat after a six-year hiatus from the U.S. Capitol, his son, who had just turned 18, beseeched him to reconsider his climate-change denial. “Dad, I’ll vote for you,” he said, “ but you’re going to have to clean up your act on the environment.”
Other politicians might have offered a disingenuous promise to their child. Not Inglis. He joined the House Committee on Science and Technology and traveled to Antarctica, where he learned that ice core drillings showed an uptick in atmospheric carbon dioxide coinciding with the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
It was there, on the planet’s snowy underside, that he had an epiphany. “We’re changing the chemistry of the air,” he says. “It was made clear to me on that trip.”
Then he journeyed to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where he witnessed the bleaching of some of the world’s most breathtaking coral formations that’s occurring because of rising sea temperatures. Upon his return, he decided he had seen enough.
In 2009, at the start of his sixth term in Congress, he introduced a bill called the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act,” to the consternation of Republican leaders. The legislation sought to levy a carbon tax that would result in higher costs for fossil fuels that emit more carbon when burned, such as coal, compared to cleaner fuels like natural gas or renewable sources of energy.
“The goal was to level the playing field,” he says. “It wasn’t to impose any artificial price on fossil fuels, and not to prop up the renewables. It simply would have forced an honest accounting of the true costs of different forms of energy.”
Those costs, of course, would not just be those associated with production and distribution, but also with the carbon spewed into the atmosphere. “In the salad bar of life, take what you want but pay for what you take,” he told fellow legislators who expressed skepticism. “If you want to burn coal, fine – just pay the whole cost of it. Be accountable, because you’re putting soot into the air.”
A carbon tax, he reasoned, would make renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, comparatively cheaper. As a consequence, the government could save money by eliminating green-energy subsidies.
It was the sort of idea that might have found interest among voters in San Francisco or Seattle. Less so among those in the Fourth Congressional District of South Carolina, which he calls “the reddest district in the reddest state in America.” There, at the time, he says, “It was almost necessary to say, ‘I don’t believe in climate change, and you shouldn’t either.’”
He set out to try to change minds among the voters who put him in office.
“I knew I was taking a risk when I stepped out of line and said that ‘Climate change is real. Let’s do something about it,’” he says. “But if you’re not willing to risk your seat in Congress, there’s very little reason to be there. If you’re just going to follow the crowd, that’s not leadership.”
In his first five terms in Congress, Inglis was beloved by conservative groups. He received 100 percent ratings from the Christian Coalition and the National Right to Life Committee. The National Rifle Association gave him an A grade. The American Conservative Union rated him at 93 percent, which, he notes, “is an A in most places.”
To liberals, however, he was a failure. Americans for Democratic Action scored him at zero. The AFL-CIO, which represents organized labor, gave him 23 percent. “I was hoping for a zero from them,” he laughs.
As he spent more time in Congress, though, he began to break with his party on key votes. He opposed President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, seeing it as a costly nation-building endeavor. He supported efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. And he backed Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out the financial industry during the last recession, an initiative that was anathema to Tea Party supporters, including many in his district.
“But my most enduring heresy was just saying, ‘Climate change is real. Let’s do something about it,’” he says.
When he ran for reelection in 2010, four fellow Republicans in his district lined up to challenge him, and they all took aim at his views on the climate. One of them told voters that the carbon-tax bill was “another example of how brother Bob has gone astray.”
At a debate, when the moderator asked each of the four whether they believed humans were causing the climate to change, Inglis was the only one to say, “Yes.” The crowd booed and hissed.
He made matters worse for himself at another event, when a man in the audience claimed that Obama did not put his hand on his heart when the national anthem was played. Inglis knew what the crowd wanted to hear: What do you expect of a secret Muslim, a non-American, a socialist?
“Any of those would have done just fine at the moment,” he says. “The crowd would have been with me. People would have said, ‘Yeah, that’s our Bob!’” Can’t do it, he thought. Won’t do it.
“I’ve been with President Obama,” he told the crowd. “I disagree with him on most everything, but what you’ve said just isn’t true. The president is a loyal, patriotic American who loves his wife, loves his kids, loves his country.”
On Election Day, Inglis got the boot. His opponent pulled in 71 percent of the primary runoff vote.
“A rather spectacular face-plant,” he says. He had no regrets.
Seven years later, in August 2017, Inglis stepped off a small boat and onto a wooden dock on Tangier Island, a mile-long dab of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that is home to about 460 people.
Political exile had brought him there.
After he left Congress, he decided not to return to his law practice in Greenville. Instead, he sought to keep fighting for a carbon tax by forming a nonprofit group called republicEn. He set out not to win over Democrats but to influence his fellow Republicans – the very people who had kicked him out of office.
He began to travel the country to speak on college campuses and to any group of conservatives who would invite him. Instead of delivering the sort of message common to left-leaning environmental activists, who sometimes rail against corporate interests and urge people to change their consumption habits, Inglis tailors his stump speech for conservative ears.
He chooses to avoid alarmist rhetoric. “We look for reasonable people to show us the exits from the burning building, not people running around saying, ‘We’re all gonna die. We’re all gonna die.’” And he insisted conservatives could address climate change without compromising their values or destroying the economy.
A tax on pollution, he insists, can be attractive to Republicans with one key condition: The tax revenue is returned to the American people. “This isn’t about growing government,” he says. “It’s about incentivizing the right behavior.”
He argues that the American energy economy is distorted. The price we pay for fossil fuels does not include the long-term costs to the environment and to human health. Meanwhile, renewable forms of energy are heavily subsidized by the government. Inglis wants to kill the subsidies, but he also wants people to pay up front for the full costs of the energy they use.
“Let’s level the playing field,” he says. “Let’s factor in all of the costs and show it at the meter, show it at the pump.”
Taxing pollution is a concept that has elicited support among some prominent conservative economists, including Arthur Laffer and the late Milton Friedman, both of whom served as economic advisers to President Ronald Reagan, a fact that Inglis is fond of mentioning in his speeches.
Although Inglis has seemed to be a lonely warrior in his quest, the concept of a carbon tax has been gaining traction among GOP luminaries. Former secretaries of state James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz threw their support behind it earlier this year. But few others in the party work the hustings like Inglis, trying in meeting after meeting, in town after town, to generate grassroots support for taxing carbon.
Which is why he traveled to Tangier. The island is disappearing.
Areas that were dry land as recently as a decade ago are underwater. Every year, it seems, the place shrinks by a few yards in all directions. When tides are high, water pools under the community’s sole schoolhouse and in many residents’ gardens. People have taken to parking their golf carts – the principal form of transport around the island – on wooden docks in front of their homes.
“I’m crabbing on areas I used to walk on,” says the mayor, James “Ooker” Eskridge, who, like most men on the island, catches crabs for a living.
But Eskridge and the majority of other residents don’t blame a rise in sea levels resulting from changes to the planet’s climate. The problem, as they see it, is the tidal erosion of their beaches.
Inglis, who had learned of how residents were feeling about climate change from news reports, figured that he needed to take a shot at convincing them himself. And they were his sort of crowd: Most Tangier residents describe themselves as politically conservative.
He asked Eskridge to convene a town meeting at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant. “If they heard it from their tribe, in their own language,” Inglis figured, perhaps “they could say, ‘Yeah, we’re for that.’”
The evening began with a brief prayer and green salads, and then continued with heaping plates of deep-fried soft-shell crabs and broiled flounder washed down with iced tea. When the two dozen guests had eaten their fill, Inglis stood to speak.
He began with a long introduction, describing how he had grown up on the South Carolina coast. Then he told them about his time in Congress and the journey of learning that took him to Antarctica and Australia. Finally, he served up his rhetorical main course: “You’re on the front lines of climate change,” he declared.
The men and women around the table, most of them middle-aged, remained unmoved.
“When I see the sea level rising, I’ll shout it from the rooftops,” Eskridge told him. “But I’m just not seeing it. I’m not lying about it or denying it, I’m just telling you what I see.”
The mayor said he has not seen the water level change on the wooden piers near his crab shack. What the island needs, he said, is not long-term solutions to addressing the climate, but an imposing sea wall composed of large rocks that would prevent erosion.
“We’re not really focused on sea-level rise,” he said.
Inglis kept trying. He sought to set himself apart from liberal environmental activists by speaking of the importance of faith in his life. He spoke of his record with conservative groups. And he shared with his audience, in moving and personal terms, what he has learned from scientists.
“Why is it that we, as conservatives, don’t want to listen to the scientists?” he asked.
Several residents responded by lumping scientists together with state officials who set rules to prevent overharvesting of Chesapeake Bay crabs. They railed against environmental regulations mandated by the state of Virginia that, they said, make it more difficult for them to earn a living on the water.
“We’re all about protecting the Chesapeake Bay,” the mayor said. “It’s more important to us than it is to any scientist or regulator. But when they talk about fixing the environment, they go to extremes and they leave the common guy out.”
During the two-hour meeting, only one person – the wife of a ferryboat captain – voiced support for the idea that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activity.
After everyone left, Inglis took stock of the evening with one of his aides. “I don’t think I changed any minds,” he admitted. “But I think I opened some minds.”
The next day, after taking Inglis for a tour of the island, Eskridge praised the former congressman for having the courage to stand before a room full of people who did not agree with him.
“He was very polite about it,” the mayor said. “We’ve had other folks come in, and because we had different opinions on the climate change and sea-level-rise issue, they really got nasty about it…. Bob’s approach was the way you should approach these things.”
An hour later, as Inglis prepared to head home, he contemplated the work ahead. More trips. More talks. More skeptical crowds.
“Sometimes you take an arrow in the back,” he said. “But that’s all right. The pioneers take the arrows.”