Bob inglis is a former U.S. Representative from South Carolina.
Bob Inglis is a former U.S. Representative from South Carolina.

There’s still a long way to go, but conservatives may have begun to move on climate change.

Fifteen Republican U.S. Senators voted on January 21st for a Republican-offered amendment that said “human activity contributes to climate change.” Five Republican U.S. Senators were willing to go further that day, voting for an amendment that says “human activity significantly contributes to climate change.” Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk was a leader among the fifteen and the five.

Perhaps it’s the dawn of the 2016 presidential cycle and the facing of an expanded electorate. Perhaps it’s the 2016 Senate reelection map that’s home to large swaths of that expanded electorate, some of it in places like Chicago. Or maybe it’s that we’re beginning to see the back of the Great Recession, and the great and immediate fears of that dark time are receding.

Whatever it is, conservatives seem to be taking the first steps in a journey of restored faith. In the depths of the Great Recession, disbelief in climate change became orthodoxy. Climate change was a hoax. Politicians on the right learned to deliver the comforting lines that climate change was one thing we needn’t worry about.

As the Great Recession began receding, a number of conservatives started saying, “I’m not a scientist.” It was a subtle but important move away from doctrinaire denial and toward a middle, agnostic position.

If these are the first steps in a journey of restored faith, three things will have to happen.

First, conservatives will need to come to the realization that the “I’m-not-a-scientist” line is untenable as evidenced by President Obama’s successful mocking of it in his State of the Union address. If a representative isn’t a doctor, truck driver or trade lawyer, must he or she also demur on healthcare, road funding or trade agreements? Our constitutional republic requires sterner stuff. Representatives are expected to listen, learn and lead. Lack of formal subject matter expertise doesn’t give a representative a bye on important questions.

Second, conservatives will want to attach themselves to a solution better than cap and trade. Cap and trade would have grown the government, hurt American competitiveness and created an unnecessarily complicated trading scheme. Better to talk about a simple, revenue-neutral, border-adjustable carbon tax. That tax could be made revenue-neutral by pairing the tax–dollar-for-dollar–with a cut in existing taxes. The border adjustment of removing the tax on exports and imposing the tax on imports would level the playing field with trade competitors. Once upheld by the World Trade Organization, the border adjustment would make it in the interest of other nations to join us in pricing carbon dioxide in their own economies.

Third, conservative leaders will have to move to actual faith. They’ll need to believe in the power of free enterprise. They’ll need to believe that we could eliminate all subsidies for all fuels and attach all costs to all fuels. They’ll need to believe that citizens, in the liberty of enlightened self-interest, can drive innovation once marketplaces are made transparent and fossil fuels are held accountable for socializing soot.

If they can complete that journey of faith, conservatives will enter the competition of ideas with an alternative to command and control regulation. If we fail to enter the competition and if the country decides to act on climate, we risk losing a tremendous opportunity for free enterprise.

Bob Inglis directs the Energy and Enterprise Initiative based at George Mason University. Inglis, a Republican, represented South Carolina’s Fourth District in the U.S. Congress from 1993-1999 and from 2005-2011.

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