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5 reasons Lindsey Graham is not going to save the climate

Help us, Lindsey Graham, you're our only hope.
Help us, Lindsey Graham, you're our only hope.
(Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is running for president. Because he is one of the few Republicans in office willing to concede that climate change is "real" and "man has contributed to it in a substantial way," the generally news-hungry world of green journalism is all over it.

Slate's Eric Holthaus has already deemed Graham "uniquely qualified to lead our country to a brighter, cleaner future." The candidate's status as the lone green Republican in the race has gotten him coverage in the New Republic, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor, Climate Progress, and Huffington Post.

Most of those reporters are not as effusive as Holthaus, who believes that "Graham has the ability to bridge the divide between the right and the left by motivating the GOP to consider practical solutions to climate change," but just in case anyone is getting their hopes up, let me precipitate a bit on the parade.

Here are a few reasons Lindsey Graham is not going to save the climate.

1) Lindsey Graham is not going to be the Republican candidate for president

Here's how Graham is currently polling in the Republican primary field:

He's losing to Bobby Jindal.

(HuffPost Pollster)

Perhaps Graham will mount a surge — the man loves surges — but it's not clear who the constituency behind that surge might be. Graham is not well-loved by the GOP base, in part because of apostasies on climate change and immigration, as well as his reluctance to obstruct everything Obama does, in all circumstances, forever. He also doesn't yet have a billionaire funder like Sheldon Adelson or the Kochs on his side.

No one, probably including Graham himself, envisions a late-season explosion of support that pulls him from the bottom of the field to the top. Instead, he is almost certainly mounting a message campaign, like Bernie Sanders — a bid to push his favorite issues into the spotlight and shape his party's platform.

Is climate change going to be the central message of his message campaign? No.

2) Lindsey Graham is not going to run on climate change

Graham has been very clear why he's running: "I'm running because I think the world is falling apart," he told CBS. In January of last year, he noted that "the world is literally about to blow up." In July of the previous year, he said "we live in the most dangerous times imaginable."

By Graham's lights, the only way to keep the world from falling apart is for America to arm, bomb, or invade as much of it as possible. Graham has advocated arming, bombing, or sending troops into Libya, Iraq (again), Iran, Syria, and the Ukraine. Failure to defeat ISIS in the Middle East, he says, "will open the gates of hell to spill out on the world."

In short, Graham is not running to persuade his party to take climate change seriously — he's running to troll Rand Paul. He's worried that Paul's brand of libertarian skepticism toward the police state at home and military adventurism abroad might catch on and become a legitimate position within the party. So he's running to hammer home the message of maximalist hawkishness — which appears to be working, since the entire GOP field has gone full fearmonger.

(Note: on foreign policy, Graham is wrong.)

3) Lindsey Graham has accomplished nothing on climate

In 2010, Graham joined with John Kerry and Joe Lieberman to work on the Senate version of a cap-and-trade bill to cut carbon emissions, which had already passed the House in 2009. The story of that bill's fate in the Senate is nothing short of tragicomic. Suffice to say, before the bill could even be introduced, Graham, in a snit with Democrats over their intent to introduce an immigration bill ahead of his, or a snit with the White House over offshore oil, or some kind of snit, bailed.


By year's end he was saying "cap-and-trade is dead." Ever since, he, like his maverick friend John McCain, has dropped the climate issue like a hot potato. For the remainder of the Obama presidency, Graham offered no proposals, no bills, and no help for Obama in any of his climate endeavors.

Graham currently says, "I believe climate change is real, but I reject the cap-and-trade solution of Al Gore." It is not clear what solutions, if any, he now supports. What is clear is that, to date, he has accomplished nothing of substance in the fight against climate change.

4) Lindsey Graham doesn't know what he's talking about

Though he has spoken of it regularly, Graham sometimes seems to misunderstand the basic nature of climate change. In the wake of the Senate debacle in 2010, he engaged in an immortal exchange with reporter Kate Sheppard that began with him saying, "The science about global warming has changed. I think they've oversold this stuff, quite frankly. I think they've been alarmist and the science is in question."

Sheppard asked for clarification about what exactly he believed. In the course of his response, he said, "At the end of the day, I think carbon pollution is worthy of being controlled, whether you believe in global warming or not."

She then asked him, why are carbon emissions bad if they aren't warming the planet? He responded:

I just think it's bad … the reason I don't hang out in traffic jams and get out and suck up the wind is I think this crap is bad for you. We've had an increase in asthma cases. If you've ever been to Thailand stuck behind 400 motorcycles, it's a lousy place to be. It doesn't take a rocket scientist in my view to understand that the stuff floating in the Gulf, if you burn it doesn't make it better for you. If you wouldn't go swimming in this stuff, why would you burn it and want to breath it?

Charitably, Graham seems to be confusing carbon dioxide (which is not harmful to breathe, except in very high concentrations) with local pollutants like smog. And he seems to be saying that it's worth reducing carbon-based fuels for the pollution benefits alone, regardless of climate change. Which makes a certain sort of sense, but sits uneasily beside Graham's long support for subsidizing and expanding fossil fuel production. In any case, absent aggressive acts of interpretive charity, Graham's comments on climate change rarely add up to a coherent position.

5) Lindsey Graham's party opposes all climate change solutions

According to most climate policy experts, reducing CO2 emissions as much as the international community has agreed they must be reduced will require a tax, a cap-and-trade system, direct support for clean energy, regulations, investments in research, or some combination of all the above.

Structurally and institutionally, the Republican Party opposes all of those policies. And core elements of the GOP base are pro-fossil fuels, anti-tax, anti-regulation, pro-sprawl, anti-transit, and anti-environmentalist. The only plausibly climate-related policies that can survive that gauntlet are subsidies for fracking and nuclear power, which, whatever their merits, do not add up to a serious climate solution.

In the wildly unlikely event that he is elected president, Graham will not be able to singlehandedly change his party on this. The GOP's center of gravity is in Congress now. As Grover Norquist put it, "We [Republicans] are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. ... We just need a president to sign this stuff."

The boring truth is that the best hope for climate policy remains electing Hillary Clinton, who, like Obama, can make progress without any help from an intransigent GOP Congress.