WASHINGTON — He's been called the "rare Republican who's actually worried about climate change" — one who's had a "reckon(ing) with climate change" and is "trying to redefine the narrative on climate change."
Amid a wave of growing concern about the impact that climate change is having on the world, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has emerged as the go-to conservative in the House on the matter as the ranking Republican on the Democrat-led Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
It's an issue few Republicans have successfully navigated, while Democrats roll out sweeping proposals like the "Green New Deal" and child environmental activists lobby Congress and world leaders.
“I think that somebody hijacked the Republican position on climate years ago,” Graves said in a recent interview. “When you apply Republican principles to this issue, you get a different outcome. It is fiscally conservative to step in and carry out proactive mitigation efforts.”
Republicans traditionally have largely avoided the climate debate.
Graves has spent the past several months promoting what he calls "an adaptation and mitigation” strategy, arguing that the effects of climate change are already having widespread impact.
“There’s nothing we can do to stop this momentum in the immediate term," he said, bleakly, in one hearing this summer. “I’m not saying long term, but in the immediate term.”
He's urged members to think of resiliency projects and other ways to address the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels.
“This is an area where we absolutely need to focus, and there is zero reason why this should be a partisan issue," he said.
The Louisiana congressman said he supports efforts to expand the nation’s portfolio of clean energy and continued reduction of harmful emissions.
“We’re actually doing a pretty good job, and we can continue on this trajectory without wrecking the economy," he said.
Louisiana — perhaps more than any other state — is deeply and complexly affected by the debate.
The state is rapidly losing land to coastal erosion and regularly faces severe weather events like hurricanes and floods, and yet it also depends heavily on the oil and gas industry. Louisiana is the top liquefied natural gas exporter.
Graves said recognizing those conflicts gives him a realistic perspective of what can reasonably be done to address climate change.
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“I think that we have an opportunity here to move forward in a principled, constructive way and not in a reckless way,” Graves said. “It is not by going out there and doing these emotional things and saying ‘We're going to cut emissions by 80% by 2020.’”
Campaign finance records show the oil and gas industry has contributed nearly $600,000 to Graves since 2013, so his role on the climate crisis committee has drawn some added attention. He's been profiled by the New Yorker, a magazine that caters to a high-brow, liberal audience, and the British newspaper The Guardian.
He drew even more national attention after video of an exchange with 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine's 2019 Person of the Year, went viral earlier this year.
"If you were sailing across the ocean and you’re picking up trash along the way, and for every one piece of trash that you pick up, there's a boat right next to you dumping out five pieces, how would that make you feel?” Graves asked her during one of the climate crisis committee's hearings.
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Thunberg argued that someone else's "trash" shouldn't affect one's personal responsibility to do better.
“If you use that logic then I am also dumping a lot of trash in the ocean," she said. "And then I would stop dumping my trash in the ocean and tell the other boat to stop dumping their trash in the ocean as well.”
Asked later about the exchange, Graves said he thinks lawmakers should be hearing more from scientists and experts, rather than emotional appeals from children.
Graves, who does not have a college degree, was Louisiana's top coastal adviser in the Bobby Jindal administration. Before that, he worked for Congress as an adviser to members of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce; Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works; and Senate Subcommittee on Climate Change and Impacts.
Graves has not proposed climate legislation and has questioned whether legislation is needed or if government could do more to shape its priorities outside the halls of Congress. He voted against the Climate Action Now Act that the House passed in May in a 231-190 vote, with three Republicans joining Democrats in support of the bill.
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The bill, sponsored by Select Committee on the Climate Crisis Chair Kathy Castor, D-Florida, sought to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement.
Graves doesn't think the agreement is needed, and he frequently points out that the United States is already the country spending the most on energy research. Emissions are already dropping here, he notes, while countries like China and India aren't addressing environmental concerns as aggressively.
"I mean this is really just tremendous what's happening and what we're doing," Graves said.
But Castor recently told The Washington Examiner that she didn’t think Graves and other Republicans are fully committed to addressing climate change if they don’t support legislation.
“Some Republicans are changing how they talk about this issue, but very few of them have backed legislation that would actually address the climate crisis,” she told the conservative news website. “Our hearings have provided ample reasons to act and plenty of examples of solutions that are ready right now. If they don’t support innovation, if they don’t support setting goals in line with science, what do they support?”
In a statement to the Advocate, Castor said the committee will roll out a “congressional action plan to tackle the climate crisis” in the spring.
“Throughout the year, (Graves) has expressed his willingness to work in a bipartisan manner to protect vulnerable communities across the nation, including his own district in Louisiana,” she said. “The climate crisis touches everyone and solving it will create enormous opportunities. I look forward to working with (Graves) and the Republican members of the Select Committee as we put forward recommendations to tackle the biggest challenge of our generation.”
Graves said he was skeptical of the committee’s work in the beginning and suspects a final report has already been drafted or at least plotted in the Democrats’ favor.
“Starting out, I think things were very partisan,” Graves said.
But members have shown greater interest in engaging with his ideas more recently, Graves said.