I am sitting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who, along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, is trying to craft a new energy bill -- one that could actually win 60 votes.
Graham has been willing -- courageously in my view -- to depart from the prevailing GOP consensus that the only energy policy we need is "drill, baby, drill."
What brought him around? Graham's short answer: politics, jobs and legacy.
We start with politics. The Republican Party today has a major outreach problem with two important constituencies, "Hispanics and young people," Graham explains: "I have been to enough college campuses to know if you are 30 or younger this climate issue is not a debate. It's a value. These young people grew up with recycling and a sensitivity to the environment -- and the world will be better off for it. They are not brainwashed. ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them. You can have a genuine debate about the science of climate change, but when you say that those who believe it are buying a hoax and are wacky people you are putting at risk your party's future with younger people. "
Graham's approach to bringing around his conservative state has been simple: avoid talking about "climate change," which many on the right don't believe. Instead, frame our energy challenge as a need to "clean up carbon pollution," to "become energy independent" and to "create more good jobs and new industries for South Carolinians." He proposes "putting a price on carbon," starting with a very focused carbon tax, as opposed to an economywide cap-and-trade system, so as to spur both consumers and industries to invest in and buy new clean energy products. He includes nuclear energy, and insists on permitting more offshore drilling for oil and gas to give us more domestic sources, as we bridge to a new clean energy economy.
"Cap-and-trade as we know it is dead, but the issue of cleaning up the air and energy independence should not die -- and you will never have energy independence without pricing carbon," Graham argues. "Nuclear power is a bet on cleaner air. Wind and solar is a bet on cleaner air. You make those bets assuming that cleaning the air will become more profitable than leaving the air dirty, and the only way it will be so is if the government puts some sticks on the table -- not just carrots. The future economy of America and the jobs of the future are going to be tied to cleaning up the air, and in the process of cleaning up the air this country becomes energy independent and our national security is greatly enhanced."
Remember, he adds, "we are more dependent on foreign oil today than after 9/11. That is political malpractice, and every member of Congress is responsible."
This isn't just for the next generation, says Graham: "As you talk about the future, if you forget the people who live in the present, you will have no future politically. You have to get the people in the present to buy into the future. I tell my voters: 'If we try to clean up the air and become energy independent, we will create more jobs than anything I can do as a senator.' General Electric makes all the turbines for the GE windmills in Greenville, South Carolina." He also is pushing to make his state a manufacturing center for nuclear reactor components and biomass from plants and timber.
Sure, Graham's strategy will give many greens heartburn. I don't agree with every point. But if there is going to be a clean energy bill, greens and Democrats will have to recruit some Republicans.
Graham says he's ready to meet them in the middle. "We've got to get started," he says, "because once we do, every CEO will adopt a carbon strategy, no matter what the law actually requires."
Five more GOP senators like him and we could have a real energy bill.
"We can't be a nation that always tries and fails," Graham concludes. "We have to eventually get some hard problem right."
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE