What’s the Real Deal With This GOP Megadonor Who’s Claimed He Wants Climate Action?

Just look at the candidates he’s supporting this cycle.

A ClearPath Action ad for Fred Upton (R-Michigan), who is in a competitive race.ClearPath Action, YouTube

Three years ago, Jay Faison, a businessman from Charlotte, North Carolina, made a big splash by promising to change the Republican party’s views on climate change. He pledged a total of $175 million to be spent on education, advertising, and endorsements in an effort to sway the GOP on the science and to support free-market, cleaner energy. 

“As a conservative, I strongly believe it’s time to stop fighting about the climate problem and begin fighting about the solutions,” he wrote in Politico in 2015. “If conservatives fail to put forward our own agenda, climate change policy will likely go the way of health care—the Democrats owned the answers, and we ended up with Obamacare.” 

And press ate it up. There was a laudatory headline by Bloomberg: “Jay Faison’s Expensive, Maddening Quest to Save the Planet (And the GOP).” He was named to Politico’s 50 that year and was described as a “conservative’s conservative by most accounts” for supporting clean energy. The New York Times profiled him in 2016, as did the Weekly Standard in 2017, in which he was described as “an ebullient 49-year-old” who “brims with optimism and a can-do spirit deriving from his practical experience as a successful entrepreneur.”

Faison, who made a fortune in the business SnapAV, which creates and distributes intelligent video surveillance equipment, has said he would have laughed 15 years ago at the notion that climate change would be his calling. (And he adamantly dislikes being compared to Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer.) But his conversations with scientists have convinced him that “this is one of the biggest risks and opportunities of our lifetimes.” 

Since then, it’s become obvious that neither Faison nor any single Republican would be able to single-handedly turn around the GOP’s approach to these issues in the foreseeable future. The commander-in-chief openly rejects what his own scientists tell him about climate change, and most of the Republican party, reliant on fossil fuel donations, is on board with the message. This summer, House Republicans passed a symbolic resolution, 229 to 180, rejecting any kind of carbon tax.

But in the years since Faison’s big announcement, it’s also become clear that his own efforts to turn around his party’s approach to climate change may consist more of good intentions than substance. His spending during the midterm elections reveal that much of his support has focused on party loyalty over climate action.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Faison has contributed about $2 million this cycle to the PAC he formed, ClearPath Action, which has spent the money on campaigns for nine Republican candidates, described in his ads as clean energy leaders. His endorsements include Carlos Curbelo, the Miami Republican who does talk about climate but is in a close race with Democratic contender Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who backers argue would be even stronger on the issue. He has also run ads promoting the records of Nevada Senator Dean Heller, Rep. Steve Knight of California, ArizonaSenate candidate Martha McSally, Scott Taylor who represents Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Rep. Brian Mast of Florida, Rep. Thomas Reed from upstate New York, California Rep. Erik Paulsen, and long-time Michigan congressman Fred Upton.

Most of these candidates have been under immense pressure to burnish their more moderate credentials, and Heller, McSally, Knight, Upton, and Curbelo have all been targeted by environmental groups this cycle because they are already competitive seats. Generally environmental activists argue that a few more Republicans who say climate change is a problem does not do nearly as much for the issue as Democratic control of Congress would. 

“We focus on endorsing those who have a proven history at the federal level of advancing clean and reliable power and which is complementary to our agenda.” ClearPath spokesperson Darren Goode said in an email, noting that the priorities of environmental groups do not factor into ClearPath’s spending. Nor is its agenda particularly concerned with climate change at all. Goode noted it is a “clean energy, not a climate, organization.”

Heller, for instance, has echoed the classic ‘wait and see’ lines about climate change that do not align with the science showing that humans are unequivocally changing the climate, and that it is looking far worse than we even thought. In 2015 he said, according to Politico, “‘There always has been [climate change], there always will be,’ but the impact from humans is ‘up for debate.'” 

Another example is this ad in favor of Fred Upton, the 16-term Michigan congressman who is in a competitive district. Of all the candidates on this list, Fred Upton has the most extensive voting history on climate and environment as former chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. The ad names a handful of votes supporting carbon-capture technology (a research area for Michigan universities) and his support of the Great Lakes Restoration funding (which receives widespread bipartisan support in Great Lakes states). 

Missing is the much longer list of Upton’s votes that have set back climate policy, including supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Once known for casting more moderate votes on the environment, his annual League of Conservation Voters score—a rough calculation of how strong politicians are on environment based on their voting records—took a nosedive after the Tea Party wave in Congress in 2010 and never recovered. One of the top 20 House recipients of oil and gas donations over his career, Upton is a longtime advocate of “energy abundance,” which is a phrase invoking the need for more fossil fuels instead of advocating for a transition to renewables.

He did join the 90-member House Climate Solutions Caucus earlier this year, after years of vacillating on the seriousness of climate change, using his chairmanship to investigate clean energy funding in the Obama administration and even renouncing his own proposal to make lightbulbs more efficient. Upton was one of the election-year additions of the bi-partisan climate caucus who prompted critics to wonder if members of the caucus seriously wanted to tackle climate change instead of just bolstering their green credentials. 

ClearPath clearly disagrees with this assessment of Upton. “Chairman Upton has helped shepherd through a number of clean energy bills through his committee that are highly important to our agenda—including on advanced nuclear and hydropower—and which help decarbonization, among other benefits,” ClearPath spokesperson Darren Goode said in an email. When asked about Heller and Knight—who have been targets of environmentalists’ ads this cycle—Goode added they “have led on energy storage and batteries.”  

Faison himself is not pushing Republicans to do much more. He is outspoken about not wanting to see the EPA address climate change through regulation, instead arguing for supporting low-emissions energy to let the market take care of our global emissions problems. Grist noted in 2016 that Faison “enthusiastically favors more drilling for natural gas, despite the many studies demonstrating that methane leakage renders natural gas no better for the climate than coal…He also talks up the promise of ‘clean coal,’ even though the carbon-capture-and-sequestration technology that could theoretically make coal less dirty has yet to be proven affordable or widely effective.”

“If you look at their website there isn’t any mention of climate change. It’s all about clean energy,” says Steve Valk, communications director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an advocacy group that pressures politicians to back a carbon tax through the House Climate Solutions Caucus.

Supporting renewables in itself is not a controversial or particularly partisan issue. For example, the GOP-controlled Congress has preserved and extended renewable tax credits, and the loudest backers of wind energy are often Republicans like Chuck Grassley, who was the original sponsor of the tax, given Iowa’s status as a wind leader. 

But adapting to climate change and drawing down emissions requires far more action than some tax credits. The United Nations recent comprehensive review of climate science makes it clear that market tweaks, like a carbon tax, will not be enough to bring emissions down the needed 45 percent in just 12 years. The report showed that climate change isn’t a long-term issue, but an urgent one, requiring more than halfhearted support of clean energy. In this way, Faison aligns much more closely with his party than it appeared when he was heralded as the GOP’s great environmental hope.