Usually the news that a major Republican donor will be dropping hundreds of millions of dollars on a campaign to influence voters on energy and climate change would make environmentalists worried. But not when that donor is spending $175 million to get Republicans to talk about clean energy and the solutions to the climate crisis.
Entrepreneur Jay Faison founded the ClearPath Foundation in December of last year in part to restore Republicans’ environmental legacy. Tuesday he announced that he will be investing $175 million on a public education campaign that will include a social media and online advertising to get Republicans to talk about market-based solutions to climate change. That includes $40 million through the 2016 cycle, and another $10 million as a seed fund for a political advocacy group. The foundation invested between $1 and $9 million in a few solar energy projects.
Faison, who comes from a wealthy family and made his fortune selling his audio-visual installation company SnapAV, has contributed over $50,000 to various Republican campaigns, according to campaign finance data from the FEC. These include the North Carolina Republican Party, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), and Sen. Bob Schaffer (R-CO).
“Environmental protection has drifted over time from a topic that once united all Americans,” Faison told the International Business Times, “to one that divides us as a symbol of our opposing political parties.”
To him the debate on climate change should not be about the science, but the solutions. “We think that there are real Republican solutions to the problem,” he told Politico.
While most party leaders are opposed to acting to solve the climate crisis, and many are dismissive of its existence (including 68 percent of those in Congress), 44 percent of registered Republicans think climate change is real and caused by humans. Another poll found that 48 percent said they are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports climate action.
Environmental groups welcomed ClearPath to the conversation.
“It may or may not be enough, but it’s a really good thing,” Debbie Sease, the Sierra Club’s national campaign director, told ThinkProgress. “If you look at the scale of what we need to do on climate, you can’t do it with one party, you need Republicans too. It would be naive of me to think it’s the one thing that’ll turn it around, but it’s a start.”
“If you look at how the progress on other environmental issues was made in the past, it was done with leadership from both parties.”
Faison, who according to Politico disdains Obamacare and “supports school choice, tort reform and small government,” has a chance to speak directly to other conservatives who are open to clean energy, or energy choice as it is often called in the Green Tea Party.
“I think it is a good thing,” said Debbie Dooley, a solar advocate who is also co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party and member of the Tea Party Patriots Board of Directors. “Mr. Faison has an excellent reputation, I think he will be very successful. It’s a game-changer.”
“I’ve seen a lot of Republicans that are open-minded and believe in a clean energy future, some from a free market perspective, some from an energy choice perspective, some from a climate perspective. There’s no reason we can’t all work together.”
With the massive amount of spending expected to surround the 2016 presidential race, it is an open question whether ClearPath can break through.
“Jay clearly has a huge uphill battle,” said Craig Holman, Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist. “He will be bringing $175 million, but I’m expecting to see $2 billion or more from outside groups. It’s going to be a bit of a drop in the bucket, from the Koch brothers to Sheldon Adelson, most of whom do not share the position that Jay does on climate change.”
Faison has personally donated $50,000 to Jeb Bush’s PAC and $25,000 to Lindsey Graham’s. According to Politico he has not picked a candidate because “this is an issue that … they haven’t clearly articulated yet.”
Graham has been active on efforts to address climate change in the senate, acknowledging it is happening. Since he announced his presidential campaign, he has said his administration would address “address climate change, CO2 emissions in a business-friendly way.” When he asks people what the environmental policy of the Republican party is, he says “I get a blank stare.”
“If the Republican party continues to be seen as anti-environment, I think they will lose in 2016,” said Tea Partier and solar advocate Dooley.
Faison singled out the millennials looking for “forward-thinking leadership that acknowledges the realities of today” in an interview with National Journal, saying “how our party and our presidential candidate talks about it will have a significant impact over voter perception, and I think the Democratic candidates know this.
If Faison succeeds in convincing large numbers of his party to push for action to solve climate change, they will have to actually work to solve those problems with Democrats and climate advocates that may disagree with them on specifics, such as whether nuclear power is worthwhile.
“There will be a group of Republicans whose solutions are not necessarily the set of solutions we would prefer, but getting them to think on it is a good step,” said Sease.
Faison has not espoused a particular solution, saying it’s “a little early to talk about which options are right.”
“We want to elevate the discussion about those menu items,” he said.
Sease readily acknowledges that ClearPath will not be able to change the minds of all those skeptical of doing something about climate change, “it’s a step in the right direction. It starts a dialogue.”
“Once you actually accept the fact that climate change is real, it’s caused by man, and controlling greenhouse gases is the way to address it,” Sease says, “it sets you down a clear path of clean energy and energy efficiency.”