Graham brings moderate record on climate into GOP presidential fight

By Jean Chemnick | 06/03/2015 07:37 AM EDT

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a proponent of climate action, joined this week a Republican presidential field otherwise populated primarily by global warming naysayers.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a proponent of climate action, joined this week a Republican presidential field otherwise populated primarily by global warming naysayers.

It remains to be seen whether Graham’s entry into the race changes how climate change will play in the race, but the South Carolinian’s announcement of his candidacy Monday in his home town, Central, S.C., didn’t mention global warming. In a speech dominated by foreign policy, he nodded to a "safe, clean environment" and gave energy issues a national security focus.

"I’m tired of sending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy oil from people who hate us," he said. "We must have energy independence."


But Republicans who want to see climate change and low carbon energy play a role in the GOP primary are nevertheless seeing Graham’s presence in the race as boosting their cause.

"I definitely think his entering the field is a good thing, not only for climate but for environment in general," said David Jenkins of the GOP environmental group Conservamerica. "The fact that Graham for some time has been calling for Republicans and conservatives to have a better plan on the environment and be seen as having ideas that can solve problems, as opposed to just saying no to what the president is doing."

Graham has been a consistent conservative voice for climate action over the last several years, a factor in the tea party challenge to his Senate seat last year. He joined a bid by then-Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 and 2010, although he walked away when the bill was introduced over what he said was then-Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) choice to bring immigration reform legislation to the floor ahead of the climate measure.

Graham walked back his support for a comprehensive climate change measure after the Kerry-Lieberman legislation imploded, and even made some statements at the time about not believing that human activity was "contributing overwhelmingly" to warming. But he continued to back more limited efficiency and low-carbon energy efforts at a time when few other Republicans did.

"I want to work with the president, Republicans and Democrats to get a rational energy policy," he said during an appearance on NBC’s "Meet the Press" in 2011 (Greenwire, Jan. 3, 2011).

And earlier this year, Graham backed amendments to the budget resolution which highlighted his continued belief that climate change deserves Congress’ attention and that lower carbon power is a solution to it (E&E Daily, March 27).

Republicans on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail have for the most part shied away from climate change. And likely Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush made waves in April when the former Florida governor told a New Hampshire audience he was "concerned" about climate change, though he diluted those statements later by saying the causes of warming were "convoluted" (ClimateWire, April 20).

Most other Republican contenders have said climate change is not settled science or steered clear of the issue altogether. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas put themselves on the record during votes on a Keystone XL oil pipeline bill earlier this year as believing that human emissions played no role in driving warming.

But in an appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in March, Graham said it was a mistake for Republicans not to cultivate their own platform on climate and the environment.

"I’d like to come up with one," he said. "I’d like to have a debate within the party. Can you say that climate change is a scientifically sound phenomenon, but can you reject the idea you have to destroy the economy to solve the problem is sort of where I’ll be taking this debate."

‘Same old rhetoric’

But as he enters the race as one of nine GOP contenders — with many more expected to jump into the scrum — it’s unclear whether Graham will have the clout to hoist climate change onto the agenda, even if he thought it would benefit his campaign to do so.

Jenkins said it will depend largely on whether the South Carolina senator can rise far enough in the polls to participate in the primary debates. Fox News and CNN will include the 10 GOP candidates in their primary debate programs that show the most support on national polls.

If Graham participates, Jenkins said, he would be well-positioned to offer substantive policy solutions.

"That will be the best thing for climate and the environment, because the way he will approach those issues will challenge others that may just sort of lazily spout off the red meat they think the base might want to hear," Jenkins said.

"He believes that conservatives can have approaches that work, and he’s never really understood why the party’s not engaging more in putting out conservative ideas for solving these problems, instead of just sitting back and being obstructionist for anybody trying to protect the environment."

Environmentalists said they weren’t impressed by Graham’s stray references to "clean energy" in his speech Monday.

R.L. Miller, co-founder of the group Climate Hawks, expressed frustration at what she called "a disconnect between the way he talks about climate change and his strength on issues like foreign policy."

As a 30-year military veteran and chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Department of Defense, Graham would be well-positioned to make the national security case for addressing warming, Miller said. But he had opted instead for "muddled, same old, same old rhetoric" about energy independence.

Daniel Weiss, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said his group was looking for "explicit" solutions to climate change and clean energy.

A belief in man-made warming "is necessary but far from sufficient," he said.

"Every day scientists ring alarm bells about the growing harms from climate change, including shrinking ice fields, more severe droughts and storms, additional smog, and the spread of tropical diseases," he said. "The politicians who oppose actions to reduce carbon pollution are endangering our health, security and economy."

LCV plans to "educate" the public about politicians who oppose carbon reduction policies, with a special emphasis on U.S. EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan — a rule that will be final very soon and that most Republican lawmakers oppose, Graham included.

But Michele Combs, founder of Young Conservatives for Energy Reform and a family friend of Graham’s, said young Republicans would respond to Graham’s message of embracing low-carbon energy while keeping fossil fuels resources in the mix. They are not interested in a confession of faith in climate change, she said.

"I think Democrats see it as a religion," said Combs, who attended Graham’s campaign rollout Monday. "I think Republicans are all about solutions and how do you solve the problem."

When it comes to solutions, Graham — who has championed expanded domestic oil and gas development side-by-side with carbon and efficiency measures — is a "hero," she said.

‘There’s no upside’

Conservamerica’s Jenkins said a proactive stance on the environment could be a boon to Graham.

The 2012 GOP presidential field was cowed into believing that the rise of the tea party meant candidates couldn’t differentiate themselves on issues like climate, but the far-right of the party has proved to be a limited voting bloc, Jenkins said. Candidates who are not established conservative "darlings" are better served maintaining their own, more nuanced views on issues like climate, he said.

Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate adviser who is now a fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said Republicans have moved away from disparaging climate science recently as polls continue to suggest that voters acknowledge the science and even back climate policies.

But while Democrats are likely to tar Republicans as "climate deniers" during the 2016 campaign, Bledsoe said Graham would have be able to present himself as a GOP contender with genuine climate credentials.

"That’s where Graham sets himself apart, even from someone like [former Utah Gov. Jon] Huntsman in the last cycle," he said, referring to the 2012 Republican presidential primary race.

The GOP hasn’t fielded a candidate who had backed a carbon program since Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, Bledsoe noted, blaming the demise of the Kerry-Lieberman bill and the rise of the tea party.

McCain sponsored two cap-and-trade bills in the years before his own 2008 presidential run, but he said yesterday on Capitol Hill that he didn’t remember climate change figuring in his race.

Asked about his close friend Graham, he said, "obviously his strong suit is national security, and his involvement in the military for many, many years."

Said former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), "I assume that [Graham] will successfully inject national security into the presidential debate. I also hope that he will inject some free enterprise action on climate into the debate."

Inglis, who owes his own defeat for re-election in 2010 in part to his support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, said left-of-center environmental groups were partly to blame for Republicans’ reluctance to buck their party on environmental issues. National green groups will show up to your retirement party when you’re defeated, he said, but don’t do much to keep you in office.

"And that’s really something I can tell you, as a Republican former office holder, is really a problem," he said. "Why put your name on climate change legislation or resolutions when there’s only downside to it? There’s no upside."