Describing himself as an “energy optimist” and a “climate realist,” former U.S. Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) told an MIT audience on Tuesday, April 25, that solutions to address climate change are within reach, but that support from conservatives will be indispensable to moving them forward.
“If there is going to be action, it is essential that conservatives join this,” said Inglis, the founder of RepublicEn and one of the country’s most prominent conservative advocates for climate action. “The way we do that is by talking to them in real free enterprise terms.”
During his lecture, the last of the year in the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative’s People and the Planet lecture series, Inglis made the case for a “tax swap”: implementing a tax on carbon while offsetting its revenues with a reduction in income or payroll taxes. This way, Inglis said, the U.S. can unleash a wave of clean energy innovation, driving down planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions without harming economic growth. And by making the tax border-adjustable — meaning that imports to the U.S. from countries without their own carbon tax would face an import tax — Inglis said his plan would catalyze the rest of the world to tax carbon as well.
Inglis, a commercial real estate lawyer, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 in his first run for office. He represented Greenville-Spartanburg from 1993 until 1998, when he unsuccessfully challenged then-U.S. Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a Democrat, for Hollings’ Senate seat. Inglis returned to the practice of commercial real estate law until 2004, the year he was again elected to the House.
It was during this second period in Congress that Inglis grew concerned about climate change. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it, and that was the end of the inquiry for me,” said Inglis. But that began to change when the oldest of his five children, his son, told him before his 2004 election, “‘Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment,’” Inglis recalled.
Inglis’ transformation on the issue continued when, as a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, he traveled to parts of the world where the signature of climate change is imprinted indelibly, including Antarctica, where he learned about the climate record contained in ice cores, and the Great Barrier Reef. Inglis began to advocate for free market solutions to climate change, penning an op-ed for The New York Times in 2008 in which he proposed a tax swap.
But while Inglis became convinced that climate change was a problem in need of action, constituents in his deeply conservative district saw things differently. It was partly because of climate change, Inglis said, that despite his rating of 93 (out of 100) from the American Conservative Union, he lost his primary campaign in 2010 to a Tea Party challenger swept into office on a national wave of voter unrest amidst the Great Recession.
After his defeat, Inglis became a full-time advocate for harnessing free enterprise to address climate change. In 2012, he launched the Energy and Enterprise Initiative — better known as RepublicEn — a nonprofit based at George Mason University centered on conservative principles. Inglis won the 2015 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for his work on climate change.
Among other Republican leaders making the case for a carbon tax is former Secretary of State George Shultz PhD ’49, who chairs the external advisory board of the MIT Energy Initiative. Shultz is part of the Climate Leadership Council, which called earlier this year for a carbon tax whose revenues would be returned to U.S. families through dividends.
Pricing carbon is an idea with widespread support throughout the MIT community, noted John E. Fernández, director of the Environmental Solutions Initiative. In 2016, MIT joined the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, a group of governments, companies, and nonprofits working to advance carbon pricing globally.
“Bob describes himself as an energy optimist and climate realist,” said Fernández. “That combination is important because there is much to be optimistic about when it comes to our energy present and future, but it’s also clear we need to redouble our efforts in finding realistic pathways toward real solutions for the climate.”
ESI’s People and the Planet Lecture Series aims to present individuals and organizations working to advance understanding and action toward a humane and sustainable future. Inglis’ visit to MIT was co-hosted by the MIT Energy Initiative and the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research.