A Louisiana Republican Reckons with Climate Change

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Garret Graves is a forty-seven-year-old Republican congressman from Louisiana who, earlier this year, bet his considerable political future on the proposition that the age of conservative climate denial is over. Graves had come to the point of view, he told me recently, “that those who were denying were taking an unsustainable position. That the science was going to further and further sink the island that they were standing on, and that eventually they would be inundated.” When the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced a new Select Committee on the Climate Crisis this winter, after teen-aged activists staged a sit-in at her office, Graves visited the Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, to argue that the new committee gave Republicans a chance to take a less obstinate position on climate change, if they were nimble enough to see it.

Graves, who is medium height and athletic, with a strong chin and a loud voice, came with a PowerPoint presentation, laying out for McCarthy “everything from the disasters to our progress on emissions, without blowing up the economy, to the strategic resources of the United States and those of other countries.” There was, he argued to McCarthy, “a better way to apply Republican principles to this issue of climate change”—an insistence that the challenge of climate change can be met by scientific innovation, by the application of our remarkable instruments and brains. In February, McCarthy named Graves to serve as the ranking member on the committee. And, just like that, the Republicans chose as their spokesman on climate change a gregarious, outdoorsy young man who liked to say that not only was sea-level rise real but that he had measured it with his own yardstick.

Environmentalists regarded this mainly as a stunt. Republicans had correctly interpreted the polling on climate change to mean that they had to change their public image on the issue. But they were not willing to break with the energy industry. Graves seemed sincere enough when he acknowledged a human role in changing the climate, but that hardly made him green. Graves’s lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters was just three per cent; in the last election cycle, he received almost twice as many campaign contributions from the oil-and-gas industry as from any other industry. “I’d love to see more Republicans get on board with climate action, but it’s not enough to change how they talk about this issue. They need to change how they vote,” Representative Kathy Castor, the Florida Democrat who chairs the Climate Crisis Committee, told me.

In the months since Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections, there have been signs of a shift in their view of the environmental crisis, changes which may turn out to be meaningful, or may prove to be as ephemeral as a branding campaign.

In May, Senator John Cornyn, a powerful Texas conservative, announced “a growing consensus [that] the days of ignoring this issue are over.” The Republican pollster Frank Luntz then circulated a memo insisting that voters “believe the U.S. must change direction on climate policy.” Democrats and climate activists received these statements with some cynicism, because of Cornyn’s long-standing ties to the oil-and-gas industry, and Luntz’s infamous memo to George W. Bush, in 2002, advising the President that there was “still a window of opportunity to challenge the science” of climate change. It was hard to believe that the Republicans had found a new church if Luntz and Cornyn were still at the pulpit.

But it was tempting to think that if there was to be a genuine Republican conversion, it would come from someone like Graves. Before he was elected to office, Graves had made his name by leading the recovery and rebuilding work in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He had led the state’s efforts to recover billions of dollars from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. His view, which he made clear to Castor, was that the parties should be able to agree immediately on projects that would help local communities adapt to and prepare for changes in the environment. Graves told me, “There is built up momentum in the atmosphere right now where adaptation is the thing you’ve got to do no matter what, right out of the gate.”

Earlier this summer, before Hurricane Barry had crashed into New Orleans but with the Mississippi swollen to a degree that made everyone nervous, I went to Baton Rouge to spend a day with Graves. A day earlier, there had been a tremendous storm: eight inches of water had poured onto the city’s downtown in eight hours. The state has not so much encountered the reality of the changing climate as been inundated by it. Storms have so constantly battered the Louisiana coast during the past decade that historical benchmarks have lost their meaning. As Graves put it to me, “We had a thousand-year flood in August of 2016. In March of that year, we had a five-hundred-year flood. One state over, in Texas, they had a thousand-year flood—Harvey. All of a sudden, you’re, like, I’m in my forties. Something’s wrong with the statistics.”

If Louisianans were beginning to see why there was always so much water everywhere, then Graves had done his part to coax that understanding along. Having spent his twenties as a staffer in Washington, he moved back to his home town of Baton Rouge in the months after Hurricane Katrina, to help work on the disaster’s aftermath for Governor Bobby Jindal. By 2008, Jindal had appointed Graves to lead the new Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, whose mandate was to coördinate the environmental response to coastal erosion. In Louisiana, where a football field of land is lost to the sea every ninety minutes, the scale of that work is heroic. At the Center for River Studies, a state-funded research and public-education initiative in Baton Rouge, Graves showed me a wall-size map of Louisiana, with the many spots where land was being lost glowing red and the few where it was being replenished lit up in green. Graves pointed out the barrier islands he had helped to rebuild, the few places where engineers had helped resist a saltwater intrusion. Such projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars, required incredible ingenuity, and succeeded only in keeping tiny dots on the map from turning red.

It had taken a while after Katrina, as Graves explained over breakfast, for him to realize the extent of the permanent changes to Louisiana’s coast, but, in 2011, when he and his staff were revising the state’s coastal master plan, he started to see it clearly. One partial tally of projects reached two hundred and fifty billion dollars. “We were never going to get two hundred and fifty billion dollars,” Graves said. The agency changed its approach. The coastal master plan eventually included a line that ran across Louisiana, indicating which communities would be protected from the rising seas. North of the line was safe. South of it, Graves recalled, “We said, ‘Look, we don’t have the resources or the technical expertise to protect you.’ It was the first time we had told them the truth.” The reaction, in the small, conservative communities along the coast, was often furious. Graves said he got death threats. He and his staff held town halls on the coast, where, he recalled, “We would explain to people, ‘You don’t deserve this. This is unjust. But this is how we got here.’ ”

Those conversations seemed to have imprinted on Graves a certain caginess in how to talk about environmental change. “People are awakening,” he said, but the awakening was slow and partial enough that a certain care needed to be taken. “Raise the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming,’ and everyone goes to their corners.” Sounding a little exercised, Graves added, “I mean, the phrase ‘climate change,’ what does that even mean?” When Graves launched his first campaign for Congress, in 2014, he criticized a more conservative challenger who called climate change a hoax, but he also ran in part on funds from the oil-and-gas industry, whom he supported in what might have been a damaging coastal-erosion lawsuit, brought by a local flood board. “In my first campaign, the Environmental Defense Fund [PAC] maxed out their contributions to support us,” Graves told me. He was smiling, enjoying the irony. “So did the Koch brothers.”

Graves’s plans for bipartisan compromise do not include a carbon tax, which most environmental economists consider essential to staving off the worst possible futures. I asked him where he saw common ground with Democrats, beyond spending on adaptation and resilience. “Step two is emissions reductions,” Graves said. “We’ve got to reduce our emissions in the United States. So we need to be moving toward renewables, updating our grid system, investing in energy-storage technologies, and figuring out how we can do a better job providing energy-storage solutions. If you’re a liberal, that’s my pitch to you.” Graves said that he supported President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris accords, because the agreement gave China, classified as a developing country, more lenient targets for emissions reductions. But he thought America might just innovate its way to those same reductions. “I think we can actually hit Paris targets without doing damage to the American economy—I really do.”

What he planned to do with his new public role on the Climate Crisis Committee, he said, was to talk about climate change in other terms—more local and less threatening. To a liberal, he might talk about the need to invest in renewable energy or alter emissions standards, he said, but to a Tea Party conservative he’d take a different tack. “Hey, I have an idea that can lower your electricity bills. Or, I have an idea that can complement what you and President Trump have done, to improve the competitiveness of the U.S. economy,” Graves said. “I’m talking about the same thing in that liberal conversation and that conservative conversation. But it’s approaching it differently and meeting people where they are.”

As we spoke, Graves kept dropping hints that, though he was a conservative politician from a conservative place, he saw the world from other angles. When we met in Baton Rouge, he was riding a funny little bespoke electric motorbike that looked like the kind of thing you’d find charging in the parking lot of the Ben & Jerry’s corporate headquarters. He mentioned that he had led white-water rafting tours in West Virginia, while working in Washington as a Senate aide, and that he had met his wife, a longtime science teacher, “who is, candidly, to my left,” while they were both teaching a mountaineering course in California. He was a vegan for a while, and is now a pescatarian, because he doesn’t want to miss out on Louisiana seafood.

Graves recalled, slightly bashfully, that he had introduced an amendment to have Cajuns declared an endangered species. The tone was tongue-in-cheek—“If being an endangered species means the federal government works with you instead of against you, then let’s do it,” he said—and he pulled the amendment almost immediately. “You know, James Carville says it’s a war,” Graves told me. “He makes a really good point. He says,”—here Graves did a respectably fervid impression of the Cajun pundit—“ ‘Look, man, your land’s being taken. Your future’s being threatened. It’s a war, man. It’s a war.’ ” At this, Graves grew slightly self-conscious. Carville is a Democrat, and the riff about war suggested a desperate view of the climate situation that Graves did not share—publicly, at least. He seemed unsure whether or not to distance himself from Carville. In the end, Graves just said, “He’s so funny.”

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In recent years, the rhetoric around climate change has grown more radical and more urgent. The latest reports of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have imagined bleaker futures; scientists have grown more outspoken; youth movements have blossomed, here and in Europe, devoted to the declaration of a climate emergency; and Democrats have mostly endorsed the idea that the planet is confronting an existential crisis. In this context, a stance like Graves’s can seem at once tragically shortsighted and, against the backdrop of his party, heroic. “Republicans have gone in three years from ‘I’m not a scientist’ to ‘We need innovation. We need adaptation,’ ” Joseph Majkut, who directs the climate-policy program at the Niskanen Center, a moderate think tank, said. “It’s a pretty profound top-level rhetorical shift.”

Some climate activists whom I spoke with suggested that adaptation and mitigation could serve as a “gateway drug” for the Republican Party, but it seemed to me that Graves was clear about how far he and his voters could go. Graves has worked with Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Northern California, on fisheries legislation. I asked Huffman, who chairs the Water, Oceans, and Wildlife Subcommittee, whether he thought that bipartisan progress on climate legislation with Republicans like Graves was realistic. Graves seemed enthusiastic, I said, about making major investments in renewable-energy sources like wind and solar. “In theory,” Huffman said. But Republicans were still boxed in by their alignment with the oil-and-gas industry. “I think, for Garret to get out of that box, he’s got to reimagine what the Louisiana economy is.”

This isn’t climate denial so much as resignation. “There’s a huge danger that we pitch from denial to complete despair where the only option becomes adaptation,” Huffman said. He pondered the implications for a second. “It’s like hospice for the planet.”

The weather meant that Graves and I could not go up in an airplane to view the Louisiana coast, as planned—our efforts to see the effects of climate change rendered impossible because of climate change, on some level—so Graves decided that we should drive toward the coast, to catch a few glimpses of the storm. It was all easy enough to see. Parking lots were swamped. Trees stuck out of what looked like lakes. The Mississippi—formally in flood stage since January, the longest such stretch since 1927—bobbed up to the lip of the levee. Graves pointed out all the trees that were being killed by saltwater, intruding where freshwater had once been. “It’s crazy that the river is so high,” Graves said. “We’re going to go up on the levee, and the comparison of the height of the water relative to where River Road is—‘scary’ may come to mind.”

On the way down the Mississippi, we could see the infrastructure of that economy—bulbous, white, featureless refineries and plants. Graves pointed out that the international politics of climate change mirrored the domestic: the places with abundant energy resources were slow-walking action, while those without were urging for the action to be sped up. “You’ve got to look at your strengths and weaknesses, and you know what we’ve got a lot of? Oil and gas,” Graves said. “You think all you see are the smokestacks—you think that’s a polluter. But these are the ones that are manufacturing the lighter materials that allow cars to get more miles per gallon in a safer manner. These are the ones that are innovating lower emissions.” Graves pointed to Valero, which has a refinery on the Mississippi. (Like other producers, it invests in alternative fuels, while remaining a national leader in carbon emissions.) The United States, Graves said, was spending more money on climate-change research than any country in the world, and liberals were sure that those innovators were the villains. He gestured again at the smokestacks. “People are thinking they’re the bad folks, but they’re not.”

We got out of the car on the west bank of the Mississippi, just a few miles upriver from the New Orleans airport. Graves wanted to show me a diversion basin called Davis Pond, which had been built so that, when the gate opened, the river and its voluminous sediment, which was otherwise bound for the deep ocean of the Gulf, emptied into the marshes, replenishing the freshwater ecosystem and the land lost, in part, to rising seas. “There is so much huge land-making capacity in this that is being wasted,” Graves said. A dozen alligators were idling by the gate, waiting for it to open and for fish to come flooding through from the Mississippi. Graves pointed at them and grinned. “Healthy freshwater ecosystem!” he said. He started to throw pieces of bread near the biggest alligator. “You can look at it two different ways,” he said. “I actually don’t think that it’s all that our ideology is wrong, and I don’t think it’s all that people are being miseducated. I think it’s a combination of the two.”

Graves’s position depends on his ability to persuade people in both parties of two ideas that are generally thought to be contradictory: that the environment urgently needs to be saved, and that the fossil-fuel industry can ultimately be a hero of our climate story, rather than the villain. So he talks in a liberal way about ends and a conservative way about means, making it seem that he wants to change the world by allowing it to stay exactly as it is. The more idealistic he is about both causes, the more credible, and therefore the more useful, he is. Once we had walked back down the levee, I asked Graves why he didn’t seem spooked by the increasingly catastrophic predictions of the U.N.’s climate panel, the I.P.C.C. “Those predictions are accurate based on our understanding of science, with all its caveats and brackets—if our technology remains static,” Graves said. With great confidence, he added, “And there’s zero-per-cent chance that happens.”

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