Climate Characters: A traitor to one tribe, welcomed into another

Inglis Class

June 8, 2017

Connecting with a scientist on a personal level fomented a climate change of heart for former Congressman Bob Inglis. (It also cost him his seat.)

By Zara Abrams 
The Daily Climate 

Editor’s note: Climate Characters follows five people with varied views on climate change with the goal of bringing a greater degree of compassion and understanding to the highly polarized conversation.

It doesn’t take a PhD. in meteorology to see the climate in a different light. 

For former Congressman Bob Inglis, who for 12 years represented the 4th Congressional District of South Carolina (what he calls “the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation”), all it took was the right messenger.

Inglis once called climate change “a figment of Al Gore’s imagination.” But less than a decade later, he betrayed his referent group—or, in his words, his tribe—also known as the Republican Party. He says the change of heart even cost him his seat in the House during the 2010 election. Although he once denied it wholeheartedly, Inglis now believes that climate change is a reality, and that humans are primarily responsible.

Inglis once called climate change 'a figment of Al Gore's imagination.' But less than a decade later, he betrayed his tribe. The change of heart even cost him his seat in the House. 

Everything changed when Inglis visited Antarctica in January of 2006 with the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology—a bipartisan delegation traveling to the bottom of the world to watch it begin to disappear. 

The group trudged through the snow for a chance to see hard evidence of global warming: cylindrical ice cores 6 inches in diameter and several feet long, which trap years of atmospheric data. 

The striped pattern inside, like the rings of an ancient tree, reveal a rise in total greenhouse gases just as the Industrial Revolution kicked off.

Inglis soon joined with another group from the Senate, led by John McCain. When they reached McMurdo Station, a lonely, sprawling research complex nestled at the foot of an inactive volcano on Ross Island’s southern tip, Inglis met a marine biologist whose words would cut deep.

Donal Manahan, a researcher from the University of Southern California, addressed the congressional group in a small classroom. The message was simple: the climate is warming, and humans are responsible.

Manahan planned to spend 20 minutes taking questions, but the session lasted over an hour to accommodate the curious guests. Inglis marveled at Manahan’s ability to cogently answer questions at a GED-level and simultaneously speak eloquently to post-doctoral researchers.8-Inglis 2009

Inglis spoke privately with Manahan at the end of the session, and the conversation turned to the biologist’s ailing mother living in his home country, Ireland. Manahan told Inglis he called her almost every day to check on her condition. With two aging parents himself, Inglis instantly felt a connection. He now cites this intimate conversation as a pivotal moment in his change of heart regarding climate change.

Inglis notes that he could have easily dismissed Manahan as a “Godless liberal” had they not connected personally. 

“It takes messengers that mean something to you, and sometimes it’s finding out that they’re not what you thought,” Inglis says. “If people could see Donal Manahan and hear him talk about his mom, they’d realize he has our best interests in mind. We can trust him.”

After the trip, Inglis heard Manahan’s pleas on behalf of the planet echoed by two other trusted sources: by Scott Heron, a climate scientist who shares his conservative politics, and by his own son. 

The support Inglis received from friends and family made him feel safe; when he shifted his stance on climate change, he may have betrayed one tribe, but he knew he’d be embraced by another.

“In church, we ask people to come down in front and accept Christ as their savior. It may feel awkward at first, but you’re surrounded by a loving community that’s willing to accept you,” he said.

When Inglis’ beliefs shifted, the support of his own “loving community” gave him the courage to accept the truth about climate change. But it wasn’t enough to save him from his political tribe—the Republicans—who viewed him as a traitor when he began advocating for a carbon tax. In 2010, he lost his seat in the Republican primary.

“The problem in politics is that the people in the pews aren’t disposed to accept you. Once you start down the aisle, they’ll stab you in the back, and step over your dead body,” Inglis said.

When Inglis accepted the 2015 Profile in Courage Award from the JFK Leadership Foundation for his work on climate change, he said it was worth sacrificing the temporary approval of his colleagues for the lasting support of those he loved. 

He found the backing he needed in his referent groups—his family, his friends, his church—and he stepped outside the cycle of self-justification to align his beliefs with fact.

Zara Abrams is a freelance journalist and master’s student in USC’s Specialized Journalism program. “Climate characters” was her thesis project. Follow her at @ZaraAbrams

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Top photo: Bob Inglis speaking to students at Northwestern University in 2013, credit - Northwestern University. Second photos: Inglis in 2009, credit - New America/flickr

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