The political reality right now is that conservative climate deniers rule in both the US and Australia. That’s an unpalatable reality to many people, but according to former US Republican congressman Bob Inglis, a former climate change denier and now a campaigner for action, it’s one that’s also rife with opportunity.
Inglis, visiting Sydney this week hot on the heels of fellow American, climate scientist, author and campaigner Michael Mann, pointed to an emerging front in the battle for the planet that steps around grass roots movements and uses the inherent nature of conservative politics and economics to achieve, hopefully, the same ends.
This new “alternate reality” ranged from the coming energy revolution, to carbon avoidance by investors and shifts in how the increasingly concerned advisory from defence organisations on climate risk might now be viewed.
In a panel and question session with a highly engaged and feisty audience, Inglis said among the more encouraging signs he could see was the presence of Rex Tillerson in the White House, as Secretary of State.
Tillerson, until recently CEO of Exxon Mobil, had in October last year called for a “revenue neutral” carbon tax.
You’d be forgiven for being suspicious, Inglis said.
“Progressive here and there would say there is no way that Tillerson is for that. You’d say, all he’s trying to do is set something up so that nothing happens.”
But what a lobbyist from Exxon told Inglis is that the company sells petroleum and natural gas. If there was a price on carbon it would sell more gas.
“Great, I can tell people you’re just trying to make money,” Inglis said. “What else is believable?”
But here’s the thing, “Tillerson is most admired by Trump.
He ran enormous company pretty successfully.”
In the background is a significant groundswell from business for a carbon price.
(Inglis is understood to have recently joined the Carbon Pricing Corridor announced at Davos that includes chief executives and senior leaders from PGGM, Engie, Bank of America, Iberdrola, YesBank and Hermes Fund Manager to promote a meaningful price on carbon.)
Groundswell in investment
Another groundswell comes from the heart of investment capital.
As he travels around the various Republican and libertarian clubs and the business schools it’s in the business schools that he gets most excited, Inglis said.
This is where there are “budding entrepreneurs planning to be the next Bill Gates of energy. They’re all charged up. It’s very encouraging to be in business schools.”
The smart money is getting out of carbon
“The smart money is already starting to judge products that don’t show a decline in carbon footprint so if you can’t show a decline in carbon footprint you’re not going to attract the investment.
“You’re not going to attract the investment capital that you used to attract.
“Things like the CDP [Carbon Disclosure Project] people are starting to figure this out. “
The two big risks that capital can’t control – policy and technology
What capital has also figured out is that there are two big risks that they cannot control, Inglis said. One is policy risk and the other is technology risk.
“What if the US surprised us (speaking from an Aussie perspective) with a border adjustable carbon tax?
“How much would those assets in the ground be worth then?
“Second if the people who are driving innovation in solar cells and better batteries…what if Elon Musk wins this thing [influence in the White House]? What is the value of the assets in the ground?
ACIL Allen Consulting principal Mendo Kundevski said that his clients were already factoring in a shadow price for carbon.
From an economic history perspective you can’t suppress price, he said.
Conservatives and tax
A questioner from the floor thought change probably could not be delivered by conservatives because they are “more allergic to the word tax”.
It would also require “an admission that it’s something that government or regulation can do. That we have a market failure.”
It was indeed hard to get an admission of market failure from conservatives, Inglis said. “On the other hand, we really do want costs revealed. We really do believe in that kind of transparency.”
Language was important. Perhaps the term “revenue neutral” would work. Certainly, help from the creative marketing department would be useful.
The faith issue and winsome ways
Inglis, a devout Christian, also broached the faith issue, in a way that pierced to the heart of the Trump campaign.
In answer to a question that pointed to the bible’s call to “care for creation” Inglis was in full agreement but to penetrate that sector of US society, he said, you had to become a “credible messenger”.
“What’s important is to have credible messengers and you go to them and affirm their truth.
“What’s happens way too often is not that. Basically, it’s going to these people and saying, ‘gee you people are a bunch of hicks; you’re holding onto God and guns
and you’re really dumb’.”
“This is not a very winsome presentation, so you have to go them with credible messages and say I’m with you, I’m one of you, let’s open your bible and see what it says, and it says take care of creation. And agree with you that is what it says.”
Defence and the security issue around climate
The tetchy nature of security was another issue raised from the floor by Gareth Johnston, who until this week was working with the Carbon Disclosure Project (the Australian office has disbanded in favour of bolstering the Hong Kong office).
Climate change is a core issue for defence organisations everywhere Johnston said, so why are conservatives not embracing the opportunities for climate security?
“Oh that’s a very interesting question, Inglis said.
“That’s an issue that will become stronger now that there is a Republican White House.”
The thing is that the “brass” in the Pentagon are less trusted when there is a Democratic government, he said.
This is because to become a four star general, you need political support.
“In order to progress as general to the four star level you are going need the support of the White House so conservatives perceived statements from the military on concern about climate change to be political – like they were trying to please the White House.
“Now that Barack Obama is gone perhaps that voice will become clear because the Admiral that runs the North Virginia naval base says, ‘for goodness sake folks the docks are going under water. We’ve got billions of assets on the ground going glug, glug, glug.”
Inglis says you can make a “good case” that the problem of the mass immigration form Syria is related to climate change.
“That mass migration is probably one of the earlier indicators of the future that’s coming.”
While he could see nodding agreement in the audience, that view faced more sceptical responses in the US, he said, because it sounds like I’m using facts to make a case.
“Experience is a harsh teacher. Eventually, alternative facts just aren’t true.
“You might have an alternative theory fact about gravity but if you step off the roof, you’re going down.”
The young and their stolen future
To a young medical student who believed she was one of just a handful of young people in the audience, and said, “I feel like my youth has been stolen from me and now we have to carry this burden” Inglis was in sympathy.
“Young conservatives are generally with us, we have a hard time with their parents and a harder time with their grandparents.”
Generally, there was a failure of imagination, he said.
By contrast, he pointed to the “American exceptionalism” of President Kennedy who spoke about reaching the moon, using materials that had not yet been invented.
“He did not channel fear, he channelled imagination.”
How the wheels came off
Inglis pointed to a time when climate was a bi-partisan issue.
He recalled that Democrat Nancy Pelosi had once said to Republican Newt Gingrich, “We don’t agree on much.”
“Newt said ‘no, we don’t but we do agree on one thing and that’s that climate change is real and we need to act’.
“That was early 2008.
“The wheels came off the financial system in the fall of 08 and by the end of that year, Newt Gingrich was saying climate change wasn’t real. Newt is nothing if not agile.”
Several other fellow conservatives did the same – Mitt Romney and John Boehner went the same way.
In the US they called the GFC the Great Recession. Climate change felt like a cancer, he said, but if you’re in emergency and you’re bleeding to death you are going to want a tourniquet and worry about the cancer later.
At the same time those that had vested interests that created that problem “blew some smoke”.
That explains some of but not all of it, Ingliss said.
In that scenario there was a lot of faith lost.
“Maybe we lost faith in the church, we lost faith in government and now we lost faith in another institution, the banks.
“In that high tide of discontent and mistrust, some well timed cash was spent by some very well heeled and very well positioned interest groups.”
It washed away a lot of good work and “Frankly we’ve been bailing ever since.”