Acceptance Speech by Bob Inglis

Link to video


Thank you for saying all of those nice things, Jack. I can’t imagine a more meaningful affirmation than a Profile in Courage. You know from the writing we’ve done together that I grew up dreaming of a part in Camelot, so it is an amazing thing to be here with you, with your family and with the memories of a young American president on whom this country pinned so many hopes.

It’s those hopes—of that young America with the future before it-- that I wish to describe here today as a potential, bright shining moment for climate change.

On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy spoke at Rice University. Congress had approved his moon shot, and he was in Houston to inspect the progress at Apollo mission control. Sweltering in the September sun, he started: “We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

OK, so it doesn’t sound the same in Southern!

Applying those words to climate change, our knowledge has increased, our ignorance has unfolded, and we’re beginning to see the damage that we’re doing to the remnant of Eden in which we live. We wish to act, but our fears tempt us to deny what we see. We want it to be that we’re not responsible, because responsibility brings guilt, and guilt without redemption brings paralysis.

But what if there is redemption? What if solutions are available to us?

Having read Profiles in Courage early in college, I knew I wanted to be one of those. I knew then and I know even better now that the future has a few leaders and a lot of followers, that when leaders are optimistic they’re saying they believe in the people they represent. President Kennedy believed in us at Rice. He said that some of the materials that would be need for space flight hadn’t even been invented yet, admitting that some of what he was saying was “faith and vision.” But he said, “the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first.”

I had hoped to be as inspiring on climate change in perhaps the reddest district in the reddest state in the nation. Apparently I didn’t do it quite as well as President Kennedy!
In Landrum, South Carolina, in the darkest days of the Great Recession, there was a debate under a big tent. The tent wasn’t quite big enough for action on climate change. The moderator, a local Christian talk radio host, asked me and my four Republican primary challengers if climate change was man-made and whether we would support a bill in Congress that would tax carbon emissions. The crowd laughed. Audibly.

It was well known that I had committed the heresy of believing climate science. My 2008 primary opponent had nicknamed me the “Al Gore of the Republican Party.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. This was now the 2010 cycle, and we had descended into the depths of the Great Recession. People were upset. They would happily receive the news that climate change was one thing we just didn’t need to worry about.

My affirmative answers—that climate change is real and human-caused and that free enterprise can solve the problem if we tax emissions with equal and offsetting cuts to payroll taxes—were not well received. All of my opponents answered the moderator’s questions in the negative, advancing the populist rejectionism of the Great Recession—rejection of the science, rejection of all things Obama, of course, and rejection, more fundamentally, of the notion that we can come together to accomplish really great things.

I wasn’t always so courageous on climate. In my first six years in Congress from 1993-1999, I had said that climate change was hooey. I hadn’t looked into the science. All I knew was that Al Gore was for it, and therefore I was against it. After a six year hiatus doing commercial real estate law, I was re-elected to Congress in 2004. Our son, the eldest of our five children, was voting for the first time that year. He came to me and said, “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but you’re going to clean up your act on the environment.” That was Step 1 of a 3 step metamorphosis for me. Step 2: I got on the House Science Committee and saw the wonders and the warnings of science in places like Antarctica. Step 3: I heard the call to love God and love people—people we will never know because they will come after us—through Scott Heron, an Aussie climate scientist at the Great Barrier Reef. I came home and introduced an alternative to cap-and-trade—an emissions tax with equal and offsetting cuts in payroll taxes together with a border adjustment that would impose the tax on imports.

My political timing wasn’t great, but I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been a circuitous path and one that I would not have chosen, but it’s been a good path. Given a choice between the law of love and the laws of politics, I know I chose the better.

Those of us who are given this Award for only sweat and tears are awed by those who have also bled. We can’t match them. People like Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a personal hero of mine even though our voting records don’t match up.

And then there are other awards for those who have also died—service men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion and public servants whose departures were not of their own making. Their impact was not only for their own times.

One of them said,

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country. . . .

That was Sen. Bobby Kennedy in 1968 announcing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we succeed on climate change, if we apply love, and wisdom and compassion, our impact, like his, will be not only for our own times.

For what we do now, will determine the future. I realize that some of my friends say, no, you’re arrogating to humankind control over God’s creation. But isn’t ours the same God who has said to us,

I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days.

“I set before you blessings and curses.”

The blessing of loving and providing for those who will come after us.

The curse of not caring.

The blessing of winning the future.

The curse of missing the opportunity to lead.

The blessing of risking a seat in Congress to explain what will become obvious while it’s still appearing as novel and courageous.

The curse of eking out re-election and losing the ability to face your children and your children’s children.

Their love, their affirmation is worth more than a voting card in Congress. And since they have the greater claim on the future, they challenge us don’t they?

They ask, when are we going to do it?

When is America going to rise to the challenge on climate?

Well, I think it’s soon. I think it’s before the decade is out. I think we’re going to come together and get this done because I believe that a pricing of carbon dioxide will be like someone said of the financial crisis, “It’s amazing how the impossible went to the inevitable without ever passing through the probable.”

The solution will come when we overcome the tribalism that’s developed on climate change.

When tribes are under pressure—as we were in the Great Recession—adherence to tribal orthodox gets to toxic levels. In such times, it’s dangerous but good to take the advice of a Palestinian businessman I met in Gaza who told me one time, “God gave us two eyes,” he said, “One to see from the perspective of another.”

When a member of Congress gets elected by his tribe and goes to Washington, he gets used to hearing the arguments of the other tribes. His blood pressure no longer rises when he hears their point of view, and he runs the risk of being detected and ruled soft by the keepers of his tribe’s orthodoxy. He has a choice to make: he can slam himself up on the right hand wall (or, if he’s a liberal, on the left hand wall) or extend a hand from that wall to try to reach the other side.

If tribalism has this weakness, it must also have some strengths. Tribes give us an identity. They help us interpret the world. They help us to process information and to make decisions and judgments on the basis of shared values.

So let’s use that strength.

Dare we stipulate that each of the tribes has some strengths to offer?

Dare we go beyond the zero sum game of grudging compromise and rise to creative collaboration?

Dare conservatives ask, “Can free enterprise solve climate change?”
Dare progressives imagine something more efficient than a regulatory solution?
Dare Republican presidential candidates break out of the disbelief of the Great Recession, the agnosticism of “I’m not a scientist” and the defeatism of “We can’t do it; we’re not China; it will hurt our economy”? Dare they answer the question with, “Yes, of course, free enterprise can solve climate change!”?
Dare the environmental left leave aside the naming and shaming for a cycle and let conservatives come back to themselves as people who accept science?
Dare conservatives of faith, like me, celebrate the science? Dare we believe that our faith is affirmed by science, not challenged by it?
To quote a very underquoted line from President Kennedy’s speech at Rice, “I think we’re going to do it.”

The impossible will become the inevitable without ever passing through the probable.

All we’ve got to do is...

Dare to ask

Dare to answer

Dare to lead

Dare to love

I know it’s within reach. Just like the moon.