As the top Republican on a congressional climate change committee, Louisiana’s Garret Graves is a surprising pick. Other Republicans on the Democrat-initiated panel have publicly doubted climate change science. Donald Trump has called global warming a hoax and the party as a whole is seen by many as an obstacle to tackling climate change.
But not Graves. The third-term lawmaker sees rising temperatures as a direct and urgent threat to his state and district, which stretches from the capital, Baton Rouge, to the Gulf coast. He acknowledges fossils fuels are heating the planet, though he thinks Democrats’ plans to quickly shift away from them are unrealistic, and he hasn’t yet offered alternative proposals of his own.
Speaking in his Capitol Hill office – with signed football helmets for both Louisiana State University and the New Orleans Saints behind him – Graves chooses his words carefully. He leans over occasionally to whisper to his press aide about the most diplomatic way to phrase a thought, a skill that will be critical to his mission.
“Years ago I said that I thought the Republican position on climate change is unsustainable,” Graves said. “Just sitting around totally denying the science is an unsustainable position.”
Given his home state, Graves’s deviation from his party is perhaps not surprising. Louisiana is losing a football field of land every 100 minutes as its shoreline is sinking and seas are rising – a reality Graves can’t ignore. Damage from hurricanes and more intense flooding are already costing the state.
Graves said people worried about climate change could emphasize conservation, efficiency and innovation, which he sees as Republican principles. They could talk about cutting electricity bills, rather than just cutting emissions. They could focus on proposals that wouldn’t undercut US competitiveness, which he said Trump is “laser-focused” on promoting.
“We can be talking about the exact same thing but explaining it differently,” he said.
Graves supports planning to adapt to climate change and to protect people from its worst effects. He wants to prepare Louisiana for a changed world. Graves once introduced an amendment to count his state’s Cajuns as an endangered species to overcome regulatory hurdles to coastal restoration efforts. And he acknowledges pollution reductions are also necessary.
But at the same time, he represents an oil and gas state. He declined to specify how much or how quickly he thinks the US should cut fossil fuel use or say whether natural gas should ever be phased out.
More and more Republicans may find themselves walking that fine line, as Americans see climate change in daily life and Democrats aim to make it a 2020 election issue.
Graves said he accepted the committee position on the issue so he could ensure that Congress is planning for the risks Louisiana is already facing. He likens the idea of fighting climate change without also preparing for it, to standing on railroad tracks facing a swiftly approaching train.
He said he found Trump receptive to planning for extreme weather when he talked to him at a bill signing ceremony at the White House.
“The president is a numbers person. When you look at Harvey, Maria, Michael, Florence, you look at what’s happening in themidwest right now with the rivers … the president doesn’t deny the economics of making principled flood protection strategies,” he said.
Graves, 47, was appointed by a Republican governor to run the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, where he negotiated with oil company BP over damages from the Gulf oil spill.
Graves was born near the bayou but loves the mountains. His children are named after favorite peaks. In 1990, he stopped eating meat as part of a bet when he was at a base camp. He outlasted his friends, eventually adding back in seafood because he said there’s “only so much tofu and cottage cheese” a person can eat, particularly in Louisiana.
But even though he stands out in the Republican party, he is hardly likely to embrace such Democratic policies as the Green New Deal (GND) any time soon. On the committee, Graves said Republicans plan to push Democrats to consider the costs and effectiveness of specific proposals, and he criticized the GND that many Democratic presidential contenders have endorsed as “utopian”.
Despite Graves’s love of nature, he still got a 0 out of 100 on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard.
The oil and gas industry is huge to Louisiana. And the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that Graves and House Republican leaders promote includes burning natural gas, which is less damaging than coal but still heats the planet.
Asked when the US might transition away from natural gas, Graves said “that’s crystal ball material” and that “natural gas is going to play a vital role in our energy policy for decades”.
He thinks the international Paris agreement – which Trump plans to exit – would have been bad for US competitiveness because China and India will keep burning coal.
But on the core science behind global warming Graves has little doubt.
Even if the US used only renewable power starting next year, he said “the seas are still going to rise, according to climate models. And the temperature’s going to get warmer, according to climate models.”