Can a GOP Donor Get Conservatives to Fight Climate Change?

Millionaire businessman Jay Faison is trying, but the presidential candidates aren’t making it easy.

Image Reuters / Jonathan Ernst
Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

The most outspoken Republican donor calling for the party to address climate change says the way forward on the issue is to not focus too heavily on climate change.

Jay Faison, a North Carolina businessman who recently dedicated $175 million to make climate change an issue Republican candidates care about, said at the National Press Club Tuesday that he’s not out to change people’s minds, just to support Republicans who adopt forward-thinking policies on cleaning up American carbon emissions.

“We don’t need to agree on climate change to agree on conservative clean energy,” Faison said. “If we’re increasing jobs, increasing our energy independence, and reducing air pollution and carbon pollution … we don’t need to agree on climate change. These policies make sense with three out of those four boxes checked.”

This minimalist approach has been gaining steam recently, even as most prominent Republicans in office either reject the scientific consensus around climate change or argue that acting on it would be damaging to the economy. Just a few weeks earlier, a bipartisan group of governors announced an agreement to more aggressively support clean energy while setting aside the more contentious climate issue. Faison, though, isn’t aiming for bipartisanship, per se. He sees clean energy as a natural conservative issue, one that is “critical for the longevity of the Republican Party.”

Large numbers of Millennials, Latinos, and suburban women care about climate change and support more proactive efforts to transition the U.S. away from dirty energy, Faison has noted. To better compete at the ballot box, he argues, the GOP needs to stop letting Democrats use climate change as a wedge issue; his goal is to blunt Democrats’ attacks and go on the offensive. He says he’d like to see the U.S. tackle climate change through free market policies and innovation, not top-down regulations like the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to regulate carbon emissions from the power sector.

He also rejects a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which many economists and conservative thinkers say could cut emissions through free market principles: “We are for more affordable clean energy, not more expensive traditional energy,” Faison said.

At the presidential level, Faison’s positions leave him without a clear candidate to support. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham actively campaigned on addressing climate change, but he’s long gone from the race and was barely a blip on the 2016 radar. Jeb Bush, to whom Faison has donated in the past, acknowledged climate change and humanity’s role in causing it, but he dropped out too. When pressed on the current roster of GOP primary candidates, Faison noted that Marco Rubio had said some encouraging things about clean energy and that Ohio Governor John Kasich recognizes climate change is a problem, although “Polling doesn’t seem to support him right now.” (Kasich is polling in a distant fourth place, with less than one-tenth of the delegates won by frontrunner Donald Trump.)

That said, most of Faison’s money is going to his nonprofit Clearpath Foundation to focus on education and policy proposals. His Super PAC, which will donate to campaigns, has raised $2 million and plans to beef up to $5 million—but that’s not enough to sway the tide at the presidential level.

“I don’t think I’m a big enough dog in that fight,” Faison said. (On the left, billionaire Tom Steyer donated $74 million to back climate change-fighting Democrats in the 2014 elections, and even that sum didn’t produce great results.)

Instead, Faison will be focusing more on congressional races, where Republicans in tight races might be more willing to get behind the clean energy message. In other words, the largest individual donor for Republican climate action is acknowledging the unlikelihood of a Republican presidential nominee who cares to challenge America’s reliance on fossil fuels. That doesn’t bode well for the success of the cause, even if Clearpath can increase the number of clean energy advocates in Congress.

The “clean energy for its own sake” argument has another challenge: convincing conservatives that this policy is a necessary solution to a problem they care about. Democrats push clean energy as the way to fight climate change, an issue that liberal voters can rally around. For conservatives, though, pushing clean energy as a path to jobs, for instance, puts it in competition with all the other ways to create jobs, including more support for the fossil fuel industry.

The Clearpath website has polling data suggesting that Republican voters would prefer a candidate who responds to Democrats not with climate evasion, but a message that “depoliticizes climate and emphasizes the wide array of benefits that clean energy provides.” If that’s the case, Faison will still have to push back the tide of conservative rhetoric that frames clean energy as job-killing, coal-annihilating liberal hogwash. That looks especially difficult considering the $107 million that fossil fuel interests gave to presidential candidates’ super PACs last year alone.

The best hope, then, may lie in the shifting sands of Donald Trump’s political stances. The real-estate mogul has repeatedly called climate change a hoax, but the six policy positions listed on his website don’t include anything related to energy. If he doesn’t have a position on clean energy, pitching it to him as a way to bring jobs back to America just might work. What better way to start winning against China?

About the Author

  • Julian Spector is an editorial fellow at CityLab, where he covers climate change, energy, and clean tech.