The moral obligation to do energy so much better

Bob Inglis fell from his reddest-of-the-red congressional seat in 2010. He fell in some part because of his views on climate change and energy. As an ultra-conservative, his bona fides had been unquestioned. But with the rise of the Tea Party and his heretical view of climate change he was vanquished in a landslide – 71% to 29% – by his primary opponent. Since then, he’s worked with RepublicEn and proudly owned the scarlet letter on his heretical chest and spoken on climate and energy from a place of deep economic conservatism and belief in the market.

In one of his better talks, he says,

If you’re a progressive understand that this is where rub comes between you and conservatives. Because way too many conservatives hear way too many progressives talking about doing with less. And we have a sense that we are going to walk and eat bugs. Or perhaps that we are going to shiver or sweat in the dark depending on the time of year.

And most people say, ‘You know. That’s not very attractive.’ Especially conservatives.
Consider maybe if you’re that progressive that maybe it’s not that. Maybe there is a moral obligation to do energy so much better, and perhaps in a distributed way, so that we can light up the developing world. So that actually those people can join us in being able to express their creativity in ways that they couldn’t when their homes were dark.

As a progressive, this is a worthwhile challenge to hear for two reasons. First, following his explanation of how his carbon tax could work it’s an interesting financial challenge to take on. Can progressives create a low-cost solution that accomplishes roughly the same goal? Color me a little skeptical about reducing the power of the EPA when we are dealing with sprawling infrastructures and polluting technologies. Cutting the beats of the cops for processes like mountain top removal, offshore drilling, fracking and chemical cracking plants doesn’t sound like a good idea. Maybe he doesn’t mean those beats. But I’m not sure. In principle, putting in a tax and removing subsidies can and should limit carbon pollution. Hell. Getting a price on carbon is in the Democratic platform. A conservative will be its best champion.

His second point about rhetoric and framing are much more important. Environmental progressives rightly argue for limits. Too many people using too much stuff to fast will undermine a safe space for humanity and overwhelm planetary boundaries. And that leads some environmentalists can be a bunch of depressing doom smiths who come across as chicken littles. My friend Katie didn’t call me “Harbinger of Doom” for nothing. But to lots of people, it’s hyperbole and noise and the squawking of some new apocalyptic religion. And myself  I’ve known just enough people at the grassroots who frame everything as an opposition between SUVs and walking or between massive sprawling unregulated highways and going back to barges. Or the people who only say no, No, NO! Everything in this world is bad and there is no working with it. Dwelling there in the fight only between uncompromising poles makes people personally cynical and socially paralyzed. Inglis is working to get us out of that.

And I know that he really is. Two days after the presidential election he spoke with my students at Penn State. We talked about many things, but chief among them were how John F. Kennedy and John Lewis had shaped his ideas, his ideals and practices of leadership. If you want to understand how a leader can speak to the great optimism of the American people, then watch JFK speak at Rice University on the space race. And if you want to understand the power of grace and forgiveness and humility, then understand that John Lewis forgave the men who beat him for nonviolently protesting racial segregation. Whatever we might disagree with on guns, abortion, or corporate taxes, Inglis can and will have a conversation with any of us. He wants us to meet to take on this great challenge of our time.

The climate and energy challenge is our moonshot. The climate and energy challenge is also today’s segregation fight. We need a bright vision that progressives and conservatives can join in. We can’t ignore the hard truths and dangers of the vanishing Arctic, bleaching corals, the scorched and dying forests of the American west and the southeast, and the rising tides that are swallowing the coasts of Florida, Carterette, and Bangladesh. Our vision has to balance bleak truths with the hard work of doing what must be done. All political stripes want an innovative renewable energy strategy coupled to carbon-storing agriculture and forestry practices. And most of us want to get there faster by putting a price on carbon. Conservatives and progressives do agree that we have a “moral obligation to do energy so much better.”


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