With the American electorate shifting solidly in favor of climate action over the last few years, Republican presidential candidates have a tough decision to make: Keep chasing donations from the fossil fuel industry, or follow where the science leads and form an authentically conservative plan for addressing the increasingly pressing problem of global warming.
Unfortunately for the planet, it’s not looking pretty. Here’s what the leading 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls have to say about climate change:
Jeb Bush: “I’m a skeptic.”
Scott Walker: Masterfully evaded a second-grader’s questions on his climate position last month, saying, “I was a Boy Scout … campsites should be cleaner when we leave than when we found it.” He’s signed a pledge to oppose any climate change legislation that includes a “net increase in government revenue.”
Ben Carson: “You can ask it several different ways, but my answer is going to be the same,” he told a Bloomberg reporter last year. “We may be warming. We may be cooling.”
Rand Paul: Recently voted in support of a Senate amendment that said climate change is real and humans are contributing to it. But just last year, he said the science on climate change was “not conclusive.”
Marco Rubio: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate,” he said last year on ABC’s This Week.
Ted Cruz: Denies a human influence on climate, recently telling CNN “there’s never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing.”
For years now, the GOP has looked the other way on climate change. Even as voters’ preferences evolve, Republican politicians have demonstrated an unwavering, shortsighted commitment to denying that humans have anything to do with the Earth’s rising temperature. A recent poll of self-identified Republicans and Republican-leaning independents found only one-third of respondents agreed with their party’s position on climate change, with a large majority saying their elected representatives are unresponsive to their views on the issue.
Global action on climate change is in large part contingent on what America, as the leading historical emitter of carbon dioxide, decides to do. It’s not a stretch to say the world depends on near-term leadership from the Republican Party, and the only way to get the country’s climate policies in line with popular demand, not to mention working toward decoupling economic growth from the use of fossil fuels, is a pro-climate Republican president. Thankfully, there exists just the candidate for the job: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
On Monday, in a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Graham lambasted his fellow Republicans for their lack of progress on climate change, saying some “soul-searching” was needed within the party on this critical issue.* “When it comes to climate change being real, people of my party are all over the board,” he said.
“Before we can be bipartisan, we gotta figure out where we are as a party. What is the environmental platform of the Republican Party?” Graham asked. “I'd like to come up with one. 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.”
Those words couldn’t be more welcome. As a senator, Graham has been a consistent centrist voice on climate, a stark contrast to the other, more extreme 2016 Republican contenders. He co-authored climate legislation that narrowly failed the Senate in 2009 and 2010 (the closest the U.S. has ever come to comprehensive climate policy). He’s supported an expanded role for nuclear power and stressed the importance of limiting air pollution to improve public health. His voting record reflects his philosophy that the way forward on climate isn’t through regulation, but through incentives to support American leadership in the clean energy economy, like tax breaks for innovative companies. The Environmental Defense Fund, a major nonprofit advocacy organization, has even held fundraisers for Graham. This statement from his 2010 Senate floor speech pretty much sums up his approach: “Carbon is bad. Let’s do something about it in a common sense way.”
For years, Graham has been a staunch critic of global warming extremism, on both the right and the left. On Monday, his practical talk on climate again struck that sane chord: “The problem is Al Gore's turned this thing into religion. You know, climate change is not a religious problem for me. It's an economic—it is an environmental problem.” In addition to Al Gore’s mixed messages on climate, right-wing politicization of science has helped make climate change the single most polarizing issue of our time. It doesn’t have to be this way. Given that the world’s carbon budget is quickly depleting, an end to talking past one another on this issue can’t come soon enough.
Now, for center-left voters, Graham brings a lot of baggage: He’s a definite hawk when it comes to American military involvement in the Middle East, and he voted against Obama’s health care reform. He’s also said he’s never sent an email before, which is just weird. But if you believe, as I do (and President Obama says he does), that climate change is an issue of unique import and poses a threat to our national security, then Graham is uniquely qualified to lead our country to a brighter, cleaner future.
Yes, there are Democrats who are more progressive on climate, but 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 that can improve the welfare of the entire world.
The business-as-usual climate change scenarios are truly frightening: If we don’t change our path in the next few years—within the term of the next American president—we’ll greatly jeopardize our chances of maintaining a planet that closely resembles the one that gave rise to human civilization. That alone merits single-issue voting on climate, and it’s why Lindsey Graham needs to run for president.
Correction, March 26, 2015: This article originally misstated the location of Lindsey Graham’s Council on Foreign Relations speech. It was in New York, not Washington. (Return.)