Sen. Lindsey Graham
Chuck Hagel
Sen. Lindsey Graham

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is not exactly what you’d call an environmentalist. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is a paltry 12 percent. Lowlights include voting for an amendment sponsored by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) that would “prohibit further greenhouse gas regulations for the purposes of addressing climate change.” He has also voted for approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, against clean energy tax credits, and against putting a price on carbon pollution. And that’s just in the last couple of years.

Now, as Graham seeks reelection to a third term this fall, Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), is cohosting a fundraiser for Graham’s campaign on behalf of Environmental Defense Action Fund, the group’s 501(c)(4) arm. (Action Funds, unlike tax-exempt nonprofits, are allowed to engage in some electioneering.)

Your confusion is understandable.

Krupp says the Environmental Defense Action Fund has worked with Graham in the past and hopes to do so again. Most famously, at Krupp’s urging, Graham helped write the Senate cap-and-trade bill to limit greenhouse gas emissions in 2009 and 2010. His support as a Republican was viewed as essential to the bill’s prospects.

But he was hardly driven by a deep-rooted commitment to a cleaner environment or safer climate. As Ryan Lizza reported in The New Yorker, “Graham came to the issue strictly as a dealmaker. He saw the Democrats’ interest in capping carbon emissions as an opportunity to boost the nuclear industry and to expand oil drilling.” As the recent anniversary of the disastrous explosion of a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, reminds us, nuclear power poses major ecological threats, and it remains deeply controversial in the environmental community. And oil drilling has plenty to answer for as well — last month also marked the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf, and March marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Graham demanded massive subsidies for nuclear power as part of the climate bill. “Graham has been among the Senate’s leading proponents of nuclear power for years, and nuclear advocates have returned the favor,” Kate Sheppard observed in Mother Jones at the time. “According to the Center for Responsive Politics, SCANA Corp., a Southern utility company with a major focus on nuclear energy, is Graham’s second-highest lifetime contributor, at $95,105. EnergySolutions Inc., a Utah-based nuclear services company, is his fourth largest lifetime contributor, at $54,800.”

Graham did acknowledge the basic science of climate change. This was politically risky in his staunchly conservative home state. But Graham also got to enjoy the national media spotlight as the new “maverick” Republican, and he was handsomely rewarded along the way. From Lizza:

Heckled at home, Graham began to enjoy a new life as a Beltway macher. “Every lobbyist working on the issue wanted time with him, because suddenly it became clear that he could be the central person in the process,” Krupp recalled. All sectors of the economy would be affected by putting a price on carbon, and Graham’s campaign account started to grow. In 2009, he raised nothing from the electric-utility PACs and just fourteen thousand four hundred and fifty dollars from all PACs. In the first quarter of 2010 alone, the utilities sent him forty-nine thousand dollars. Krupp introduced Graham to donors in New York connected to the E.D.F. On December 7th, Julian Robertson, an E.D.F. board member and a hedge-fund billionaire, hosted Graham at a small gathering in his Manhattan apartment. Some New York guests gave money directly to Graham’s campaign account. Others, at Krupp’s suggestion, donated to a new group called South Carolina Conservatives for Energy Independence, which ran ads praising Graham in his home state.

When the going got tough on the climate bill, Graham walked away from it, saying he would vote against it because climate science is “oversold” and “in question.” Since then, his environmental record has been mixed at best.

So why is EDF backing Graham? It all comes down to the group’s theory of politics. As Lizza noted in The New Yorker, EDF believes in cultivating partnerships with Republicans. That makes sense if you think bipartisan support is essential to passing any major legislation.

But considering the intense partisan polarization in Washington, that view might be outdated. Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act without a single Republican vote. And a climate bill will only move through Congress if Democrats control both houses. To make that happen, you must defeat Republicans wherever possible.

South Carolina is not a place where Democrats are competitive. The alternatives to Graham — his half-dozen far-right primary challengers — would almost certainly all be worse than he is, but Graham holds a commanding lead over all of them.

Environmental groups want Republicans to know they will be rewarded for going out on a limb. But politics requires both carrots and sticks. EDF seems uninterested in using the latter against Graham. Robertson, the EDF board member mentioned by Lizza, is hosting the upcoming Graham fundraiser in his Manhattan home. If Graham’s recent behavior is to be rewarded, what isn’t? Does EDF have any confidence that if the Senate were currently considering a bill to take action on climate change, Graham would back it? I certainly don’t. If Republicans gain control of the Senate, is EDF confident that Graham would vote against their certain effort to strip the EPA of authority to regulate greenhouse gases? I’m not.

Presumably, EDF reasons that continuing to support Graham will get it at least an opportunity to make its case. But if Graham has nothing but reelection in six years in a conservative state to worry about, what leverage will EDF have over him? EDF did not respond to requests from Grist for comment.

Graham, as The Huffington Post notes, has supported some clean water and wetlands programs in recent years. But climate change is the most important environmental issue today, if not the most important issue period. It is the litmus test all politicians should have to pass before qualifying for support from the green community. And Graham’s recent record on the issue is a failure.

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Correction: This post originally stated that Graham cosponsored the Senate cap-and-trade bill. In fact, though he helped craft it, he did not ultimately sponsor the bill that was formally introduced in the Senate in May 2010.