The South Carolina Republican has joined forces with Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to drum up support for a bill that would put a price on heat-trapping pollution.
Graham's position has irked just about everybody. He has been censured by Republicans back home for supporting a bill that would clamp down on greenhouse gases. Environmentalists have criticized his push for nuclear energy, more oil drilling - and most recently his support of a GOP effort to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Some Democrats are just befuddled.
But his ability to attract enough votes for a bill to pass the Senate may well determine whether President Barack Obama can deliver on the promises he makes at U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen this week, and whether he will achieve one of his top domestic priorities: setting up a cap-and-trade system that would put a price on each ton of global warming pollution released.
Graham sat down with The Associated Press for a half-hour interview Thursday to discuss his stance on climate change.
Q: How did you get involved in this issue?
A: It was a slow evolution. I started traveling with Sen. (John) McCain, who has been a climate change advocate for a long time, and I went to the Arctic region with him and Sen. (Hillary Rodham) Clinton. I came to the conclusion from listening to the scientists ... from people who lived in the regions, that the canary in the coal mine is in the Arctic regions, and that the planet is heating up. How much is caused by greenhouse gases, I don't know. But I believe to some extent it's a contributing factor. ...
Now, why did I choose to do something this time around? ... The one thing that I could say without any doubt, that the best chance to create jobs for the future here in this country is energy independence. And you will never become energy independent until you price carbon.
Where are the friction points to getting to 60 votes (to advance a bill)? If the emissions standard is not meaningful, if it's not economy-wide, I don't think you get there. This whole issue of China and India and a global regime looms large in getting 60 votes in the Senate. Without some assurances that this is not a unilateral surrendering of market share to China and India - because our companies will have a burden imposed upon them not shared by China and India - is a huge political problem. ... Those are some of the trip wires that exist to getting to 60 votes.
Q: Why haven't you been able to convince other Republicans to buy your argument?
A: I can convince Republicans pretty quickly of (oil and gas) drilling, nuclear power and alternative energy. This is not about polar bears for me, it's about jobs, cleaner air and purer water.
Cap-and-trade has been a tainted term. The bills that exist today have not been able to gather moderate Democratic support, they have not been able to gather Republican support. The cap-and-trade system has been called cap-and-tax and I think for some good reasons. So what I have to convince Republicans of is that you know as well as I do this is the best way for us to create new jobs in the future, that you know the green economy is coming worldwide and the only way we are going to get there is to lead, not follow.
Q: Obviously it seems that you are not for the EPA regulating greenhouse gases through existing law?
A: This is the worst of all worlds. They (the EPA) can only impose burdens on business, they can't give business the tools to comply with those burdens. They can't give the nuclear power companies the incentives they need to build more nuclear power plants.
Q: Are any Republicans still talking to you?
A: My ace in the hole is business. The one thing I have going for me that could win the day is I have a lot of business people encouraging me to try to do this compromise.
Q: Are you concerned about the political fallout back home, where some Republican leaders have censured you for your climate change stance?
A: My state has 12 percent unemployment, so I think I am going to win the day back home. I am confident that I can sell this because my state is on its knees economically.
Q: What are your thoughts on the scandal over the hacked e-mails from some prominent climate scientists, which many Republicans have claimed discredits the science showing that pollution is causing climate change?
A: Well, I never embraced this from that point of view. You will never convince me all these cars, and all these trucks, and all these power plants spewing out carbon, fossil fuels, day in and day out for 60 or 70 years is a good thing. It makes perfect sense to me that this amount of carbon pollution over a long period of time has had a detrimental effect on the environment. I don't get wrapped up into how much is caused by man, or how much is caused by nature. I do believe pursuing clean air and clean water is a good thing for my generation to do.