Lindsey Graham: the Republican who wants to tackle climate change

South Carolina's senior senator, one of the GOP's few moderates on climate change, launched a bid for president Monday. But Sen. Lindsey Graham's odds are long, and his campaign is focused on national security.

Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina shakes hands with supporters after announcing his campaign for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Central, South Carolina

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina announced a long-shot bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination in his hometown of Central, S.C. Monday, becoming the ninth official Republican candidate.

Hawkishness on foreign policy is Mr. Graham’s calling card in the GOP field. Graham wants to send 10,000 US troops to Iraq, and has urged President Obama to more aggressively counter Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

"I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate in this race. That includes you, Hillary," Graham told supporters at his announcement, referencing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton. "I know the players, I know our friends and I know our enemies alike."

But what truly sets Graham apart from the ever-growing GOP field are his views on climate change. While Graham may be more vocal than other Republicans on national security, his views align with the prevailing GOP sentiment: The US should project more power abroad. In contrast, Graham’s belief in climate change – and in government efforts to limit climate-altering emissions – flies in the face of what most other Republicans are saying.

Climate change is increasingly important to the US electorate, some polls show. The majority of US voters – and most Republicans – support government action to combat global warming, according to a New York Times poll released in January. And Graham is perhaps the GOP candidate who best reflects shifting US public opinion around climate change.

Graham – who’s been in Congress for two decades – worked with Democrats in 2010 on cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming, until negotiations crumbled. He believes climate change is real and human activity is contributing. He’s even encouraged his party to do some “soul searching” on global warming. Graham has said that their conflicting chorus of messages on climate could spell trouble in future elections.

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“I think there will be a political problem for the Republican Party going into 2016 if we don’t define what we are for on the environment,” Graham told Roll Call in November.

And while he's a far cry from most Democrats on environmental issues – the League of Conservation voters, an environmental group, scored his congressional votes as "pro-environment" 11 percent of the time – he's among the most pro-environment in his party.

The only other candidate who comes close to Graham’s moderate stance on climate change is Gov. George Pataki (R) of New York, who announced his candidacy last week, and pursued regional efforts to scale back greenhouse gas emissions in his state.

So where are the rest of the 2016 Republicans on climate change? In short, all over the place.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has been tight-lipped on climate change, but does not accept the scientific consensus that human activity is driving global warming. Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, a Tea Party favorite, responded to questions about his climate skepticism in March by saying "I just came back from New Hampshire, where there's snow and ice everywhere.” And former HP CEO Carly Fiorina told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast last month that innovation – not regulation – is the only way to limit emissions effectively.

Political observers say it’s difficult to imagine Graham winning the GOP nomination. He barely registers on national polling, and an early primary victory in South Carolina – the state he represents in the Senate – would not be a game-changer.

“Even if Graham were to win South Carolina, where does he go from there?” Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics in Charlottesville, told Monitor congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer. “Generically, he’s just not a popular guy.”

It’s more likely that Graham’s run is an effort to push Republicans to be more aggressive on national security – a counterweight to the candidacy of Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky, whose isolationist tendencies rile defense hawks like Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a close ally of Graham’s in the Senate.

In some ways, Graham’s hawkishness dovetails neatly with his position on climate change. The US military has said that climate change and attendant sea level rise threatens military bases, and could impact the food supply, making the world more volatile.

“I don’t know if it’s an immediate national security threat, but I think the effects of climate change can destabilize the world,” Graham said in March, according to The New Republic. “In that regard, it is a national security threat.”

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