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Why Lindsey Graham Flipped

In ClimateWire today, Darren Samuelsohn has a valuable profile of Lindsey Graham, who's emerged as the highest-profile swing vote on climate change, especially after his Times op-ed with John Kerry over the weekend urging the Senate to pass legislation. It seems Graham's been particularly impressed by the national-security arguments in favor of curbing America's carbon dependency:

Sen. Lindsey Graham spent his summer testing out lines on global warming. As the Republican hit the town halls in South Carolina, a state with a major military presence and one of the country's highest unemployment rates, Graham would ask people if they thought climate change was a problem.

Few did.

But Graham quickly followed with another question, asking for a show of hands from those concerned about energy security. The response was strong, and Graham wasted little time making the connection.

"You can't look at it in isolation," Graham said in an interview last week. "I'm trying to say, OK, you're skeptical about global warming, you're worried about the compliance costs, and you think maybe there's not much benefit to the environment. I'm not there, but I respect that.

"What if I took something you agree with, that this country had a lot of resources that need to be explored and extracted, and every barrel of oil that we can find off South Carolina with South Carolina's permission, and natural gas deposits, make us more energy independent?" he added. "What if you married those two things up? And took some of the revenue from oil and gas exploration and put it toward reducing our carbon dependency? I think that's a deal that a lot of people would go for. You don't have to be a true believer of drilling offshore or that climate change is real. You've just got to be willing to give and take."

There are plenty of other reasons for Graham's burgeoning interest in climate policy. South Carolina is home to seven nuclear reactors, with four more in the planning stage, and cap-and-trade could give those projects a leg up. Hunters in his state are increasingly dismayed about global warming's adverse effects on wildlife. And Graham himself feels comfortable wandering across the aisle and working with Democrats (he's not a Jim DeMint, scorched-earth type). But the national-security fears loom largest: Graham snaps to attention every time generals and intelligence analysts warn that a sharp increase in global temperatures, bringing droughts, floods, and refugee crises, could make the world a more dangerous place.

It's also no coincidence that, in recent weeks, Democrats have been stressing this security angle as they stump for carbon legislation. As Lisa Lerer reports in Politico today, that's precisely why John Kerry, rather than Barbara Boxer, has become the face of the Senate climate bill—as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee he can (the theory goes) more credibly make this pitch to colleagues. Environmentalists, in turn, are hitching up with veterans' groups —this week, Operation Free is sending Iraq and Afghanistan vets on a 21-state tour to talk about how climate change could impact American security.

Now, is this a viable strategy for 60 Senate votes? Who knows? The security frame does poll pretty well: Clean Energy Works recently commissioned a poll in Arkansas, of all places, that found overwhelming support for cap-and-trade (55 percent to 37 percent) when the oil-dependency/security pitch was stacked up against the right's "cap-and-tax" mantra. On the other hand, from a policy perspective, relying too heavily on national-security arguments could create a few knots. Bolstering energy security and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions are, after all, two distinct goals that can sometimes come into conflict. To take just one example, tapping Canada's tar sands would make us less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, but it's also a carbon-intensive process. So we'll have to see how this plays out.

(Flickr photo credit: Rob Bluey)