Bob Inglis: How I changed my mind about climate change Former GOP congressman Bob Inglis used to believe climate change wasn't real. But after a candid conversation with his children and a hard look at the evidence, he began to change his mind.

Bob Inglis: How I changed my mind about climate change

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And back in the early 2000s, politician Bob Inglis felt very sure of his beliefs.

BOB INGLIS: I was pure as the driven snow. You know, that's how I thought of myself. I mean, really, I thought that I was perfect and everybody else in the political process was a bunch of swine. Really, that isn't very sanctimonious, to tell you the truth.

ZOMORODI: For 12 years, Bob was the congressional representative for Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C.

INGLIS: The reddest district in the reddest of the nation.

ZOMORODI: And Bob saw himself as a true conservative.

INGLIS: Somebody who believes in freedom, individual responsibility and accountability.

ZOMORODI: And he had the stats to back that up.

INGLIS: Ninety-three American Conservative Union lifetime rating, 100% Christian Coalition, 100% National Right to Life, A with the NRA, zero with the Americans for Democratic Action, the liberal group, and 23, by some mistake, with the AFL-CIO, the labor union - I was really hoping for a zero.

ZOMORODI: And on the environment...

INGLIS: I said that climate change was nonsense. I didn't know anything about it, except that Al Gore was for it.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

INGLIS: And since I represented a very conservative district in South Carolina, that was the end of the inquiry.

ZOMORODI: Why do you think that was?

INGLIS: Al Gore had been very involved in learning about climate change, and so he really did become the first name that comes to mind when you say climate change. And, you know, I've seen it's - there's been this contest between faith and science within the evangelical church that probably dates back to the whole question of evolution. There's also some disrespecting, of course, that's gone on where scientists basically say to biblical believers, oh, you're a bunch of bible-thumping ignoramuses. I mean, that really is sort of the feel that many believers have gotten from scientists.

ZOMORODI: But then something happened just as Bob was gearing up for election in 2004.

INGLIS: That's the year that our son, the eldest of our five kids, had just turned 18. So he came to me and said, dad, I'll vote for you, but you're going to clean up your act on the environment. So his four sisters agreed. That's where I started thinking, well, gee, I really do need to pay attention to this, and I need to find out what the story is here.

ZOMORODI: But, you know, you're a congressman. You could have just said, like, well, we can agree to disagree. I'm sticking to what's on my platform, and tough luck. But you didn't say that. Why not?

INGLIS: Well, you know, some sons are trying to grow up to be like their father. I'm trying to grow up to be like my son. You know, he's good-looking. He's smart. He's fun. He's funny. He's all the things I'd like to be.

ZOMORODI: That's so nice.

INGLIS: And he's got four wonderful sisters who are also people I'm trying to grow up to be like. And so, you know, I knew that my son loved me, and he was going to vote for me no matter what. But I think he was really saying, dad, I love you, and you can be better than you were before. That's what made it possible for me to listen to them. And of course, I'm also aware that societies that can't listen to their young people are the ones who get stuck. And then the world passes them by. That was step one for me in this metamorphosis on climate.

ZOMORODI: Bob Inglis continues his story from the TED stage.


INGLIS: The second step for me was getting on a science committee. I got the opportunity to go to Antarctica and saw in the ice core drillings at the South Pole the evidence. It's pretty clear - long stability followed by an uptick in CO2 that coincides with the industrial revolution. We have warming. So I saw that evidence in Antarctica. Third step in my change - we had the opportunity to go to the Great Barrier Reef and see coral bleaching. And I was inspired by an Aussie climate scientist. I figured out that he was worshipping God in the creation - not worshipping the creation, but worshipping the God behind the creation. Subsequently, I had plenty of time to talk with him, and he talked to me about changing his life to love God and love people - people that he would never know, could never know, because they'll come long after us.


ZOMORODI: So you had this major transformation. I mean, but that's not easy, right? Like, when a politician changes their stance or does a 180 on a topic or an issue, that's not usually seen as coming to a new understanding. That is called flip-flopping in politics.

INGLIS: Yeah. Yeah. And that's - it's a real problem, isn't it? I mean, if we can't do 180s on things, then that means we're just stuck. You know, I'm of the opinion, when the facts overtake you, it's better to be overtaken than to double down disputing the facts because facts are stubborn things.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

INGLIS: It's sort of curious, especially in my faith tradition, that, you know, we talk about people having conversions, and that's a positive thing. But in politics, you can't convert. You got to stick with whatever the mistake is that you said when you first ran.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

INGLIS: And, you know, you can stick to it, even though the evidence is mounting up that you're wrong.


ZOMORODI: Admitting you're wrong can be painful. Many see it as a sign of weakness. And sticking to your beliefs these days, that shows you've got guts and a backbone. But what if we understood how flexible thinking can spark our curiosity and bring people who differ together, or at least feel more compassion towards each other? So today on the show, changing our minds - why reevaluating our ideas and beliefs can be good for our brains and relationships and even bring us a little joy.

For Bob Inglis, the last step in his transformation was proposing climate legislation. He introduced the Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act of 2009, which would impose new taxes on fossil fuels. And as a Republican from South Carolina, it was a pretty controversial move.

INGLIS: Probably not the best idea in the midst of the Great Recession - I think for many of my constituents, they thought, this is just too much. I mean, you've gone too far here, Inglis. We just - you've broken trust with us 'cause we're not sure who you are.

ZOMORODI: So for those who don't know, tell us what happened when you ran for reelection in 2010.

INGLIS: Well, it wasn't even close, you know? (Laughter) After 12 years in Congress in a Republican runoff, I got 29% of the vote, and the other guy got the other 71% of the vote - so a rather spectacular face-plant in politics, I suppose. You don't usually lose by that margin after 12 years in Congress. So it was quite an abrupt end.

ZOMORODI: How did you feel about that? Did you say - think to yourself, well, you know, this is the sacrifice I have to make? Or did it, like, sting as much as it sounds like it would have?

INGLIS: Oh, it's very - it's awful. It's quite a sting. I mean, to lose in a primary, especially, is painful. It's one thing to lose in the general election. You know, if you lose in the general election, there's a party to come home to. They'll invite you to the next Lincoln Day Dinner. They'll let you speak.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

INGLIS: They'll say, yeah, you put on a good fight. And you are our champion. And you came a little short. But still, we love you. You lose in a primary, there's no party to go home to. It's sort of like a divorce or something. It's just a terrible feeling 'cause you - you know, people who have hugged you around the neck, told you they love you. They're praying for you. You go to the next county convention, and they've got the other guy's sticker on their lapel. And it's - so it's really - it's why I think so many politicians - this is left and right - are so worried about losing in a primary 'cause it is way more painful than losing in a general election.

ZOMORODI: So tell us, then, what you did after not winning the primary. You weren't a congressman anymore. But you decided that you wanted to focus on climate. So tell us about what you decided to do.

INGLIS: Well, a foundation came to me and said, you know, Inglis, you're an unusual zoo animal, you know? I mean, you're, like, an actual conservative who says climate change is real. Will you speak and write for us? So that's what I've been doing ever since. And it's now this thing called that urges conservatives to engage in climate. There are a lot of conservatives who just haven't heard it in their own language yet. And if they could hear it explained in the language of conservatism, they can say, well, now I'm seeing a solution that fits. I see. You're not trying to regulate my very breath. You're trying to do just what Milton Friedman would have told us to do. There's a great clip of him on the "Phil Donahue Show" in the 1980s.


PHIL DONAHUE: Dr. Friedman is our guest, and we hope you'll join us.

INGLIS: So what do you do about pollution, then, Dr. Friedman?


MILTON FRIEDMAN: There is a case for doing something about pollution, but the way we've been going about it is the wrong way.

DONAHUE: Is there a case for the government to do something?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, there is a case for the government to do something about it.

INGLIS: If you don't want to regulate it, Friedman says, you tax it. You tax pollution.


FRIEDMAN: The amount of pollutants emitted by a car and make it in the self-interest of the car manufacturers and of the consumers to keep down the amount of pollution in that way.

INGLIS: Conservatives would be able to say, oh, this is our story. This is our song. It's rock-solid conservatism to act on climate change. You got to send the right messenger because most politicians are waiting to follow. They typically don't lead. So we need to create a constituency that they can follow because this is a problem, and it's for real. And we're literally all in this together.


INGLIS: You know, at the end of your time in Washington, can you imagine the emptiness of knowing that you stood for nothing, that you risked nothing, that all you did was follow fearful people to where they were already going rather than trying to lead them to a better place? If you're not willing to lose your seat in Congress, there's really very little reason to be there.


INGLIS: So here is the thing - it's not too late. Speak out. Speak up. Tell them the very good news that we can bring America together to solve these challenges and to lead the world.


INGLIS: Thank you very much.

ZOMORODI: That was Bob Inglis. He's the head of the nonprofit republicEN. You can find both his TED talks at Today on the show - changing our minds. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.


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