03/12/2014 07:58 pm ET Updated May 12, 2014

A Conservative's Lament

In 2004, Republican Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina won 85 percent of the primary vote in the most conservative district of arguably the most conservative state in the union.

Six years later, he received only 29 percent of the vote in the primary and was ousted from office by the Tea Party's candidate. Why this precipitous fall from grace? It was his public declaration that the global warming threat was real and demanded prompt attention.

The irony, in Inglis' view, is that the solution for addressing climate change is a conservative one, and accordingly, conservatives are best equipped to implement it. Unfortunately, says Inglis, they have an inferiority complex about climate change and defensively opt for denial, when they have the entrepreneurial initiative and know-how to meet the challenge.

Inglis' ideal "conservative" solution is an impost on carbon emissions that would not fiscally penalize the public because it would be offset by using the proceeds to reduce federal income taxes. Meanwhile, the carbon tax would be an incentive to steer society in the direction of cleaner alternatives to heavily polluting fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases would be reduced and global warming slowed. In the course of all this, Inglis argues, conservatives would achieve some of their major political objectives. The carbon tax would be a self-limiting check on greenhouse gas emissions, thereby decreasing the federal Environmental protection Agency's regulatory role. Conservatives' aim to reduce the size and scope of a centralized government would be advanced. Federal subsidies would be curtailed and the transition to a clean energy future would be managed primarily by the private sector's exercise of the free enterprise system. Inglis adds that imposing a carbon tax on goods exported into this county would likely motivate other nations to enact a carbon tax of their own. That would render moot the conservatives' contention that it was pointless for us to act when the rest of the world continued to spew carbon without restraint.

Inglis has been traveling around the country, trying to persuade conservative audiences that global warming is a legitimate threat and ready made for them to handle.

He notes that when he cites all the prominent conservative economists who support a carbon tax, he detects interest in the crowds. But he adds ruefully that when he ends his presentation by asking if there are any questions, "no hands go up. A few loudmouths in the audience have succeeded in cultural numbing. No one dares to cross the current tribal orthodoxy."

To break this pattern, Inglis says, a few people need the courage to defy ideological rigidity, speak up, and proclaim that the carbon tax is "bedrock conservatism".

Inglis started out as a doctrinaire conservative Republican, reflexively viewing global warming as a bunch of hooey concocted by Al Gore for partisan reasons. But his transition began when his family pressured him to change his position, and was solidified by official trips to Antarctica and Australia's Great Barrier Reef where he witnessed climate change's dramatic adverse effects. It inspired him to introduce a carbon tax measure in 2009. The action sealed his fate when the economy faltered, causing his once loyal conservative constituents to focus critically on his "green" agenda and remove him from office.

Inglis admits it can be daunting to convince conservatives, those champions of capitalism, that a carbon tax is an instrument of free enterprise and therefore coincides with what they deeply believe. But he warns Liberal Democrats that the conversion must succeed, because one political party alone cannot successfully temper climate change.