Climate change candor: Bob Inglis’ profile in courage

    We shouldn’t let Earth Day pass us by without talking a bit about Bob Inglis.

    You’ve probably never heard of Inglis – named last week as the new recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award – but he warrants the honor that he’ll receive on May 3. Like all past winners, he was a politician who paid a high price for committing the sin of candor. His particular sin was twofold. During his 2010 congressional re-election campaign, he told his fellow South Carolina Republicans…wait for it…that climate change was (a) real and (b) caused by humans.

    Bye bye, career.

    Inglis at that point was a veteran House Republican with a 93 percent lifetime rating fom the American Conservative Union, a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition, a 100 percent rating from National Right to Life, an A rating from the National Rifle Association, and a zero rating from the Americans for Democratic Action. He had vocally demanded Bill Clinton’s impeachment (“I hated Bill Clinton,” he said later, “I wanted to destroy him”). He had railed for years about the evils of federal “pork.” He had represented his Bible Belt district for 12 years and was going for more. He appeared to have checked all the requisite right-wing boxes.

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    But nope, not good enough. This was 2010, the tea-party wave was cresting, and Inglis was being challenged in the GOP primary by a guy who was even more conservative. Inglis was taking heat for a few heresies – he refused to call President Obama a “socialist,” he had voted for the bank bailout – but the final straw, what he later called “the most enduring heresy,” was his stance on climate change. In a 2012 PBS interview, he recalled a key moment:

    “I had a big tent gathering in Spartanburg County, a bunch of Republicans under a very big tent….And so there comes a question to me from the local Christian talk radio host, who says, ‘Yes or no – Do you believe in human causation on climate change?’ I had a bad habit of answering questions, so I said yes. Boo, hiss, comes the crowd. I was blasted out from underneath the tent. There are a couple hundred, 300 people there. I mean, it was intense.”

    Inglis had voted in Congress against Obama’s cap-and-trade bill, assailing it as a big-government solution. However – and this was another sin against Right Think – he vetted the reality of manmade climate change by proposing a simpler tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Combatting fossil fuel pollution was in sync with Biblical law, as he later explained: “You cannot do on your own property what harms your neighbor’s property.”

    He had studied the scientific consensus on climate change, he had dwelled long and hard in the real world, and felt compelled to say so out loud. As he later lamented, “In (my) district, we call ourselves the ‘shiny buckle of the Bible Belt.’ So I think for some it is a religious heresy…for us to presume that any action that we would take (on climate change) would affect the longevity of His creation (and) is an affront to the sovereignty of God….Denial is a pretty good way of coping.”

    His candor killed him politically. He was ultimately beaten – 71-29 percent – by a conservative challenger named Trey Gowdy. The same Trey Gowdy who’s currently helming the umpteenth Republican probe of Benghazi. Which tells you all you need to know.

    What Inglis said about his party, shortly after his defeat, resonates today: “It’s a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible.” The same goes for what he said in 2012: “You can’t build a credible conservative movement where you’re trying to hold back facts with shaky ideology.” The problem, however, is that fossil fuel magnates like the Koch brothers are financing troll-level ignorance and polluting Republican minds: “Funding the doubt about science is where they are making their most effective play.”

    But Inglis, the 93 percent lifetime conservative, hopes that his Profile in Courage Award will somehow prompt his ideological brethren to tackle climate change and pursue bipartisan solutions. In his words last week, “I hope this is a moment for conservatives to be inspired.”

    As if.


    Quick addendum:

    I met Inglis in 1998, riding with him as he campaigned (unsuccessfully) for the U.S. Senate. He was such a principled conservative that he repeatedly refused to bring home federal bacon to his district – and the conservative voters gave him grief for that. A retail store manager named Mark Belk told me, “This is a very conservative state and I’ve voted for Republicans, but we have to get all the federal dollars we can.”

    Back in the campaign van, I asked Inglis about the conservative voters’ hypocrisy. Didn’t he want to bend his principles just a wee bit? But he shook his head no, and said, “I don’t want to go on a looting mission in Washington.”

    Inglis lost that race, too. But it was an early profile in courage.


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