Sympathetic GOP donors to talk strategy on sidelines of regulatory conference

By Jean Chemnick | 07/14/2015 07:24 AM EDT

Supporters of a Republican response to climate change are meeting in New York today for a meet and greet ahead of next year’s elections.

Supporters of a Republican response to climate change are meeting in New York today for a meet and greet ahead of next year’s elections.

Among the meeting’s participants will be entrepreneur Jay Faison, who grabbed headlines last month by pledging to stake $175 million on encouraging moderates and conservatives to address the causes of warming (Greenwire, June 9). GOP environmental group ConservAmerica will host the gathering on the sidelines of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) summer meeting at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel. Texas real estate scion and Republican donor Trammell Crow will attend, and Republican climate donor Andrew Sabin, owner of a precious metals refinery, was slated to do so but had a scheduling conflict.

All three Republican businessmen have provided financial backing both to candidates and to academic and nonprofit groups that operate in the climate space — making them anomalies in a party that is more closely associated with the likes of anti-regulatory donors Charles and David Koch.


Their goal is to help facilitate a Republican shift away from rejection of climate change science to a stance that emphasizes nonregulatory approaches to mitigation. Some, like Faison, embrace the idea of a revenue neutral carbon tax. Others, like Sabin, favor research and development and other incentives for low-carbon industries.

"I think the three of us want to convert the party and get them thinking environmentally," said Sabin, whose family foundation gave Columbia University $3.5 million to found the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law.

Today’s event is happening during the regulators’ confab by happenstance because ConservAmerica planned to attend at the same time the Dallas-based Crow planned to be in New York. The Republican environmental group is seeking to bridge the gap between utility regulators grappling with how their states should best comply with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan and environmental groups on the left who are zealous about implementing the power plant rule but may have little knowledge or interest about how to do so cost-effectively, its executive director, Rob Sisson, said yesterday. ConservAmerica board member and former Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Marc Spitzer will be on hand to give perspectives, Sisson said.

Today will be the first time Faison and Crow meet, the latter said. Both have met Sabin separately, and he said in an interview last week that he hopes to bring the group together for a dinner in Washington, D.C., in September with sympathetic Republican lawmakers.

Sisson said it was important for like-minded Republicans to meet and share ideas.

"I would like them to create an opportunity for open dialogue among Republicans — particularly elected Republicans — on a national energy policy and on climate change," Sisson said yesterday. "And I think to a certain extent they’ve already had significant impact."

Today’s agenda is informal.

"We’re going to sit around and say, ‘We need to fix this. We need to get Republicans to not be deniers, but to be warmists,’" said Crow, using a word coined by conservatives who reject man-made climate change to describe those who believe in it. "’We need to get to Jeb Bush and make sure that he knows this.’"

Crow said he recently met with Texas State Land Commissioner George P. Bush (R), son of former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush, and told him that his father needed to articulate a stronger position on the human causes of warming. The elder Bush, who is among the front-runners for the GOP nomination, has tried to chart a middle course between rejection of climate science and the kind of pro-action stance Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has sometimes taken. Crow said that during their conversation, George P. Bush repeated the current GOP talking point that the climate is always changing and the cause is uncertain — a line Crow panned as a "cop out."

He said he also raised his concerns in a meeting with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus earlier this month at which he said he warned that his support would depend on the RNC’s accepting the science of climate change.

"He tried to placate me and tried to assure me that they’re getting there," Crow said.

GOP politicians aren’t moving to a pro-climate stance in a publicly very visible way yet, as statements by the 15 contenders for the GOP nomination can attest. Graham is the only one who regularly affirms man-made warming, and it has figured little in his campaign.

But Sabin and Crow say they see progress on that front, despite the views regularly expressed by Republicans on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail about man-made climate change.

For one thing, Crow noted, most young Republicans believe human emissions are driving warming. Polls show that younger voters — including young Republicans — worry more about climate change than their elders do.

And Republican climate donors and conservative scholars alike say that in private meetings and conversations Republican politicians are often receptive to the idea of a nonregulatory approach to climate change.

Crow and Sabin say that a key will be ensuring that the 2016 presidential nominee affirms the science. Sabin is backing Bush, who he says he hopes will "the next Teddy Roosevelt" when it comes to the environment. Crow is keeping his powder dry but says he hopes Bush will take a strong stance on warming.

The candidate said in April during a campaign stop in New Hampshire that he was "concerned" about climate change, though he did not address its causes (ClimateWire, April 20).

Crow said that at a minimum Bush has some Republican donors, like himself, who have approached him on the issue.

Sabin, Crow and now Faison — who could not be reached for this story — all have a track record of putting their money where their mouths are on this issue.

Faison’s $175 million pledge so far includes the endowment for ClearPath and $10 million to fund campaigns this cycle. He has doled out $500,000 to a super PAC supporting Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who has a relatively pro-climate action voting record, including for an amendment earlier this year that stated that warming was significantly driven by human emissions.

He gave $100,000 to the super PAC backing Graham and $50,000 to Right to Rise, which backs Bush.

Faison supports a market-based response to climate change like a revenue-neutral carbon tax and has provided some financial backing to D.C.-based conservative think tanks that promote that idea, like the R Street Institute and Niskanen Center.

Sabin does not support a carbon tax because he says it’s politically unviable. He has donated to green groups ranging from Earthjustice and the Nature Conservancy and has also given to a variety of environmentally minded Republican politicians.

An avid hiker and fisherman, Sabin’s climate focus is an extension of a long-held environmental interest.

"I’m very involved in environmental conservation. Extremely. I have three frogs, two chameleons and a lemur that will be named after me," he said, sounding more proud of his animal namesakes living in far-flung corners of the globe than of his university endowments.

Fighting money with money

Crow is the founder and funder of Earth Day Texas and a backer of ConservAmerica. He makes environmental and immigration reform a condition of his support for Republican office seekers and donated to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) during the 2012 presidential primary. He said during the interview that while he thought a carbon tax would be the simplest way to address warming, he was unsure whether it would ever gain ground.

Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, which was established last year to advance a carbon tax model, said he hoped the idea would become viable after the 2016 elections.

"Something like this could come into play as part of a larger tax reform package, for instance. Perhaps as part of a deficit reduction package," he said. "Maybe even as a remedy for an EPA regulatory jihad that if it is not derailed by the courts is going to cause increasing angst in the corporate community."

The proliferation of center-right donors and groups like his own gives moderate and conservative politicians permission to think "heretical thoughts" about climate change and entertain ways to cope with it, Taylor said.

One narrative of how Republicans came to be so uniformly against climate action over the last five to seven years is that they came to believe that to talk about global warming is to lose financial and political support. The Kochs, among others, have made a practice of backing Republican primary contenders against incumbents they believe are not good anti-regulatory allies.

"If you are Jay Faison or somebody like him, and you want to take the party in a different direction, if money is what took the party in this direction, then money is how you move the needle and take it in a different direction," Taylor said.