The sixth time he ran for Congress, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina) made two big mistakes.
The second mistake, according to Inglis, was when he refused to confirm at a town hall event that President Barack Obama was indeed an evil secret non-American Muslim socialist.
But the truly shameful blunder that would cost him the election was when he spoke the words: “Climate change is real. Let’s do something about it.”
“I got 29% of the vote after 12 years in Congress,” he says today with a self-effacing chuckle. “A rather spectacular face-plant, really.”
With his Congress career officially over, Inglis decided to dedicate himself to finding conservative solutions to climate change.
Inglis hoped to use traditional Republican values such as free enterprise, limited government, accountability, and reasonable risk avoidance to shape the climate conversation in a way that would appeal to people in the reddest of the red communities.
His mission took him all the way from Antarctica to Tangier Island, Virginia, a small crabbing community in the Chesapeake Bay.
Tangier Island is perhaps best known as the setting for the battle that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but today, Tangier Island is losing about 15 feet of land every year from rising sea levels — and many of its 700 residents still don’t believe in the threat of climate change.
Inglis thought that if they heard about climate change from a person who holds many of their ideologies and is just more like them, the residents there might say, “Yeah, we’re for that.”
But it turned out that was easier said than done:
With help from Tangier Mayor James Eskridge, Inglis arranged a conversation with locals over a crab salad dinner.
He tried to appeal to them as a fellow Christian with an impressive resume of endorsements from conservative groups such as the NRA and the National Right to Life Committee.
The people of Tangier listened and responded to what he had to say, but they still insisted that the island wasn’t suffering from climate change. It was just natural erosion or settling soil — nothing that needed a long-term solution except perhaps a seawall.
“When I see the sea level rising, I’ll shout it from the rooftops. But I’m just not seeing it,” said Eskridge. “I’m not lying about it or denying it, I’m just telling you what I see.”
When Inglis asked why, as conservatives, they didn’t want to listen to scientists, the answer was simple: resentment.
“We’re nothing,” one resident said. “They’ve made fun, ridiculed. But you let a scientist talk, and everybody listens. Scientist is fine, but we’re forgetting the experience that people have.”
“With some of ’em you get a smart mouth, and we’re not into that. We don’t need a smart mouth,” another added.
“We’re all about protecting the Chesapeake Bay. It’s more important to us than it is to any scientist or regulator,” the mayor said. “But when they talk about fixing the environment, they go to extremes, and they leave the common guy out.”
Inglis understood this attitude. It was one he had himself back when he was still a party-line Republican in Congress.
“If you represented the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation like I did, you just knew that Al Gore was for it, and so therefore, you should be against it,” he says.
But now he knows: That hyper-partisan, us-or-them divide doesn’t solve the real problems we’re facing. It only helps to make the divide — and the resentment — dig in even deeper.
Inglis tried to explain to residents how conservatives could incentivize the right behavior and steer the environmental conversation without the federal government getting in the way. He appealed to their logic by pointing out that even if they don’t believe in rising sea levels, higher tides still mean more erosion, so maybe there is something that could be done about it.
In the end, not many were convinced, and only one Tangier resident expressed that day that maybe mankind had something to do with climate change.
But that doesn’t mean that Inglis’s mission was a failure.
Eskridge remained skeptical about the climate issue, for example. But he was still moved by the conversation. “[Inglis was] very polite about it,” he 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.”
Inglis didn’t change as many minds that day as he had hoped.
But he certainly opened some minds and tempered some of that resentment by connecting with people and treating them dignity and respect.
The fight to save our planet might still have a long way to go, but as Inglis’s journey shows, it has to start with human beings.
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