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In a Republican Party that rejects belief in human-caused climate change and calls to cut carbon emissions are anathema, a major donor is throwing $175 million into an effort to change their minds.
North Carolina businessman Jay Faison says he's putting $165 million into a nonprofit advocacy group called ClearPath, which touts carbon-free energy and points out the risks of inaction. He told the National Journal he's also going to spend $10 million on elections through a separate fund, warning that Republicans risk being left behind on a major issue if they continue to reject climate science.
In a video posted on the organization's website, he says the issue needed a voice "that was respectful to moderates and conservatives."
"We need market-based policies that are smart, long-term and consistent," Faison says. "And with that, businesses will deliver the innovation and investment we need for that future."
The site calls for the United States to tax carbon emissions to fund carbon-free energy and lead a global drive to reduce emissions. Its "sources and partners" include NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Princeton-based Climate Central and business consultants McKinsey and Company, which has analyzed the costs and benefits of different approaches to reducing emissions.
The website promises to provide readers with "the best, most objective sources" and urges them, "Beware of sound bites. Form your own opinion. It's important."
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Charlotte-based ClearPath did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News. But Robert Brulle, who teaches sociology and environmental science at Philadelphia's Drexel University, called Faison's pledge "a serious scale-up of the amount of money being spent here."
By comparison, oil and gas companies, trade associations, and organizations that oppose climate action spend up to $45 million a year on advertising; environmental groups typically spend about $5 million a year, he said.
"This guy coming up with $175 million, depending on how it's going to be used, I would say it changes the advertising and advocacy relationships significantly," Brulle told VICE News. "This isn't chump change. This is a serious investment."
Brulle has helped catalogue how much of the opposition to taking any steps to rein in carbon emissions comes from a network of wealthy conservative activists, like the petrochemical magnates Charles and David Koch, and from a network of advocacy groups that don't have to disclose their donors. Even with the support of its own billionaire advocates, like financial news tycoon and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg or former hedge fund chieftain Tom Steyer, environmentalists are still heavily outgunned.
The money Faison is throwing into the fight is a step toward leveling the playing field — but it could also trigger a kind of "arms race" in spending on public relations, Brulle added.
"The velocity of this issue is going to significantly increase, and so is the spending on both sides," he said.
Faison contributed $17,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014, $2,600 to Charlotte-area US Representative Robert Pittenger and another $5,000 to Pittenger's Free Markets PAC, according to federal campaign records. He told the National Journal that he hasn't decided where his campaign contributions will go, but his largesse will reward thoughtful response to the issue."
Of the GOP presidential hopefuls, only two —South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former New York Governor George Pataki — are on the record endorsing the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are warming the planet. Graham told CNN this week that if elected, he would address the issue "in a business-friendly way."
"When 90 percent of the doctors tell you, you have got a problem, do you listen to the one?" he asked. "At the end of the day, I do believe that the CO2 emission problem all over the world is hurting our environment. But the solution is a pro-business solution to a lower carbon economy."
Brulle said Faison's move is a sign that the bedrock opposition to climate action among Republicans — whose 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, supported capping carbon emissions — is starting to erode. But while it's nice for environmentalists to have a rich advocate in their corner, the reliance on a green sugar daddy could end up short-circuiting public debate over how to approach the issue, he said.
"What we see here is competing billionaires deciding what our public policy should be," he said. "I'm concerned about that, because just because they have a billion dollars or two billion or 20 billion in the bank doesn't necessarily mean their ideas are the best ideas … in the end, democratic discussion and debate and dialogue becomes submerged into big-money spin campaigns."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl