‘Pragmatic’ view on warming will help GOP thrive — Jay Faison

By Jean Chemnick | 07/21/2015 07:35 AM EDT

Jay Faison says Republican participation on climate action will do as much to shore up the GOP brand as to help the planet.

Jay Faison says Republican participation on climate action will do as much to shore up the GOP brand as to help the planet.

The North Carolina real estate scion and conservative donor made headlines last month by pledging $175 million of his personal funds to climate change, launching both a charitable foundation and a political action fund to pump money into the campaign coffers of Republican candidates who embrace the issue.

But while changing GOP hearts and minds on warming is crucial to breaking the gridlock on Capitol Hill on one of the most significant environmental issues of our time, he said, it will also help Republican office seekers court millennial, female and Hispanic voters who polls show are particularly concerned with the issue. Those votes might otherwise go to Democrats in general elections.


"In order for the Republican Party to be viable with the changing demographics out there, we’re going to need to be more pragmatic, and this is one of those issues that I think we can and should lead on," Faison said in an interview yesterday.

Human-driven climate change may not rank near the top of issue polls of likely voters, but a candidate’s stance on it can signal his or her "relevance to today’s problems," Faison said.

"If you’re on late-night talk shows saying that it’s too expensive to solve or it’s not a big problem, I think that’s going to reflect very badly on the candidate, and I think it’s going to reflect very badly on the party," he said.

Faison has been compared to Tom Steyer, a Democratic donor who devoted his own resources to supporting climate-friendly candidates. But Faison said in an op-ed yesterday in Politico that the comparison "makes me chuckle and cringe."

"He and I may read the same scientific findings, but that’s about it. Steyer and his allies have largely focused on defeating Republicans," he wrote in the column. "I’m interested in encouraging, defending and supporting Republicans."

But that means making sure Republicans have a credible platform when a Democratic opponent raises climate change during a campaign, he said.

Polls frequently show that Democrats enjoy more public approval on the issue of climate change than Republicans do. A Gallup poll ahead of the 2014 midterms showed that voters gave Democrats a 20-point edge over Republicans when it came to addressing warming, 40 percent to 20 percent.

Faison has donated to the campaigns of two GOP presidential contenders: South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has emerged as a center-right front-runner.

In comments in early-voting states, Bush has attempted to steer a middle course on the issue. He told a New Hampshire audience in April that while he was "concerned" about warming, the demise of the U.S. coal industry worried him more.

"I think Bush understands the problem. I think he also understands the politics. And I think the politics are tricky," Faison said yesterday.

Faison said he did not expect to make an endorsement in the primary, or for climate change to figure prominently.

"You might see some candidates start to move slightly on this issue in the primary, but I think the general election is where this is going to get interesting," he said. "Because Hillary’s going to make this a wedge issue. I think she’s said she will."

In her June 13 speech in New York announcing her candidacy, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton riffed on the Republican refrain from the midterm elections — when several candidates said, "I am not a scientist," and therefore couldn’t discuss the causes of global warming.

"Well then, why don’t they start listening to those who are?" she said.

Faison’s largest recipient to date has been Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a moderate who was chosen both because she was one of five Republicans earlier this year who voted for an amendment stating that human emissions were a "significant" driver of climate change and for her status as an up-and-coming Republican leader in an important race for Republicans. Ayotte’s super PAC received $500,000.

Faison also gave to Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R), a South Florida lawmaker who has bucked his party to discuss the threat rising sea levels pose to his district.

But Faison’s environmental giving has not prevented him from continuing to support the Republican establishment, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a top booster for his state’s coal industry and proponent of states opting not to implement U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

Faison, who also opposes the EPA power plant regulation, gave McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund $25,000. He said yesterday that his support for the party in general was an asset.

"I’m very deep into the R party and leadership, and I can advocate from the very inside of the tent," he said.

‘Solutions are important’

Faison launched a foundation last month in an effort to "bring Republicans to the table" on climate change, in part by proving to them that there are palatable policy alternatives to combat the problem."

"There’s some work around the psychology that says if you don’t like the solution, you’re not going to believe in the problem," he said. "And that’s why I think solutions are so important."

Besides a market-based policy like a carbon tax, Faison also touts the need for net metering to encourage private citizens to invest in distributed generation. In his Politico column, he said distributed solar "could soon be the ultimate in energy freedom — if we prevent the massive monopoly utilities and their fellow incumbents in the political class from strangling it with overregulation." He said that Koch Industries-backed Americans for Prosperity, which opposes policies in a variety of Southeastern states that would expand incentives for rooftop solar, appear not to understand that their free-market libertarian beliefs should lead them to support those initiatives.

The Politico column also calls for more public support for research and development.

Conservatives who are already part of the right-of-center pro-climate action landscape say Faison is an important addition because as a businessman he can sway other free-market conservatives and entrepreneurs to care about warming.

"It’s validation of the premise that free enterprise can solve climate change," said former Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who said Faison reached out to him for input ahead of the launch of his ClearPath Foundation.

Inglis, who owes his 2010 defeat for re-election in large part to his own pro-climate-action stance, said politicians routinely lag behind private-sector leaders in their understanding of key issues.

"The future clearly isn’t just in burning the same stuff we’ve been burning," he said. If John D. Rockefeller, co-founder of Standard Oil, had been alive and doing business in the 21st century, he’d be invested in distributed generation, Inglis said, not oil rigs.

Eli Lehrer, president of the R Street Institute and a proponent of revenue-neutral tax policies for carbon dioxide, said the $10 million Faison has pledged to Republican climate candidates in this cycle is "non-trivial," especially given how few Republican donors usually weigh the issue at all when doling out largesse.

Its significance will depend on how it is deployed, Lehrer said.

"People have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on elections and had nothing to show for it, and some modestly financed efforts have done very well," he noted.

R Street received a modest donation from Faison, and Lehrer said the proliferation of right-of-center groups that are willing to delve into climate change make it more likely that elected officials will someday follow suit.

Solutions like EPA regulation, Lehrer said, are "unacceptable to conservatives for reasons totally disconnected from climate change, per se, because they’re liberal ideas. And of course conservatives will reject them." Conservatives are more likely to embrace action on warming if policy options exist that don’t offend core tenets of their political beliefs, he said.

Key senator weighs in

A possible new Republican message on warming emerged yesterday from an unlikely corner: Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).

In an op-ed in the conservative National Review, Cornyn began, "Let’s stipulate two truths: yes, our climate is changing over time and, yes, humans have played some part in that change."

But Cornyn went on to cast doubt on what climate scientists warn could be the worst effects of warming and to deride the Obama administration and congressional Democrats for supporting "unilateral" U.S. action to combat emissions.

Instead he suggested that U.S. private-sector innovation — without a mentioned policy trigger — could step in to address the problem.

"While climate models fail, America’s entrepreneurial minds have shown time and again that they are simply more adaptive and ingenious than government regulators and bureaucrats," he wrote. "When the government tries to play savior, we find that overbearing, intrusive Washington ‘solutions’ do far more harm than good.

"Let’s instead promote innovation-driven answers that fit the diverse needs of consumers, businesses, and a growing economy alike," Cornyn concluded.