On the day that Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination for president in July, listeners of PRI’s The World heard this from one of the many Republicans who stayed away from his party's convention in Cleveland: "I think what we're seeing in Cleveland is the death gasp of the Grumpy Old Party."
The speaker was former South Carolina representative Bob Inglis, and like many party leaders at the time, he was intensely critical of Trump and fully expecting his party to lose badly in November.
But he didn’t blame the impending disaster only on Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and policy positions. He also laid it at the feet of a party orthodoxy that Trump embraced: rejection of the scientific reality of climate change.
"We're basically pulling defeat down upon us by taking on this retro affect that says that climate change isn't real," Inglis said at the time.
Well, that was then.
Trump defied the experts and won of course, and his position on climate change doesn't seem to have hurt him or his party a bit.
So how did Inglis so misjudge the importance of climate change to voters and, like so many other observers, get this election so wrong?
“Well,” Inglis said with a bit of a wry chuckle, in an in-depth interview this month with The World, “I think we're not wrong yet. I think it's just a timing question.”
Trump fanned the flames of what Inglis calls a populist “prairie fire.” That fire burns on, he says, “but I think it's gonna burn out.
“Of course that's another prediction,” Inglis admits with more than a tinge of irony. “It's a very dangerous thing to predict the future.”
And meanwhile, he says, “this prairie fire … has consumed a lot of normal discourse in politics; it threatens to consume some of our institutions, and it surely threatens to consume the data about climate change.”
A 'disturbing' EPA nominee and Trump's unlikely influencers
Inglis, who lost his seat in Congress to a Tea Party challenger in 2010 and now runs the free-market climate activism organization RepublicEN.org, believes in that data — the wide and deep body of science that tells us climate change is real, and that humans are largely responsible for it. And he believes it's dangerous to ignore it, as the Trump administration seems determined to do.
Trump has famously called climate change a “hoax,” along with other unprintable invective, and his dismissal of the reality of the threat is carrying over from his civilian life to key appointments in his new administration, including Oklahoma Attorney General and climate change denier Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA.
Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee - I'm in Los Angeles and it's freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 6, 2013
Inglis has called Pruitt’s nomination “disturbing … [and] a threat to my optimism,” and says it’s “a challenge to see what's happening in the administration that’s forming in Washington.”
But he is not completely without hope that the incoming president will yet see the light on climate change, as suggested by his post-election willingness to meet with Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, his comments to the New York Times editorial board, and reports that his daughter Ivanka has been pressing Trump on the issue.
“There's some hope out of Trump Tower in New York,” Inglis said. “I mean, if Ivanka Trump really wants to make this a signature issue, we [would] be excited about working with her.”
Inglis also sees promise in another controversial nominee to Trump’s cabinet: Rex Tillerson, the head of Exxon Mobil Corp. who plans to step down at the end of the month.
“We think that Rex Tillerson could actually be a positive force and part of the overriding of the problem that we think that Scott Pruitt could present at the EPA,” Inglis says.
“Tillerson said that he's for a revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax. And [he] changed the position of Exxon Mobil away from the dispute of this climate science to acceptance of that science. [So] it might just be that Rex Tillerson could show the president and the rest of the administration that yes, there is a way that free enterprise can solve climate change.”
'A perfect place for the art of the deal' on climate
Inglis acknowledges that “many on the environmental left” probably don’t see Tillerson the same way “we do on the eco-right.” But he holds out hope that between Tillerson’s fossil fuel-industry cred and Ivanka Trump’s family ties, incoming President Trump could be turned into “the guy that completes this sentence: ‘Richard Nixon went to China, Bill Clinton signed welfare reform, and Donald Trump did climate change.’
“Because he might just realize,” Inglis says, “that this really is a perfect place for the art of the deal. This is a tailor-made situation for going with an approach that actually is attractive to many progressives as well as rock-solid conservatives — that [through a carbon tax] you just put the cost of the negative effects of burning fossil fuels into the price of the product, then consumers drive demand for innovation.”
“This is an imminently solvable problem,” he says. “It’s not like health care, for example, which will go on forever because we’ve got limited resources and we all die. ... Climate change is so easy to fix. All we’ve got to do is internalize the externalities, reveal those hidden costs, eliminate the subsidies — including the subsidy of being able to dump into the trash dump of the sky for free. Eliminate that, and make it so that innovation makes sense economically, [and] we can fix this. And we can get the whole world in on fixing it.”
And Inglis says that innovation is already underway. Which is why, despite their other differences, he actually agrees with one of Trump’s and Pruitt’s key climate policy proposals: getting rid of President Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, which would force electric utilities to cut their climate pollution.
“I think it's OK to eliminate the Clean Power Plan because we're gonna meet those marks anyway by the conversion of coal to natural gas,” Inglis says, referring to the massive switch by electric utilities (from coal to natural gas) brought about at least in part by the fracking revolution of the past decade. “We’re gonna exceed the Clean Power Plan targets just by those market forces.”
Trump's 'false promises' and 'rhetorical war crimes'
Of course Trump’s promise to eliminate the CPP was rhetorically bound up with his promise to bring back the thousands of coal industry jobs lost in recent years. And Inglis says here too, the incoming president’s rhetoric does not match reality.
“The reality is that it's possible to repeal the Clean Power Plan but it sure will be more difficult for Donald Trump to repeal the price of natural gas," he says.
“The populist false promises made to the coal miners, while going to Texas and saying ‘frack on’ — those false promises will come back to bite him, I believe, and people will realize we were sold a bill of goods. These jobs aren’t coming back.”
And it’s Trump’s loose rhetoric (and worse) that Inglis says might keep him from working with the new president's administration — in the unlikely event he actually got a call from Washington.
Trump “committed some rhetorical war crimes against our country,” Inglis says. “And those need to be cleared out before progress can be made. It’s not OK how he talked to us, and about some of us. … A constitutional republic relies on certain norms of behavior. Those norms are being violated daily. And the result is a demeaning of our constitutional republic. That needs to stop."