A Charlotte entrepreneur has quietly launched a $175 million campaign to convince his fellow conservative Republicans that climate change is real and business can fix it.
Jay Faison, a son of the late Charlotte developer Henry Faison, made his own fortune 18 months ago when he sold audio-visual equipment company SnapAV. Then he went to work on what he calls “the biggest risk and the biggest opportunity of our time.”
ClearPath, the nonprofit foundation he started with $165 million from the sale, aims to demystify climate science and seek market-based solutions as a counterweight to governmental approaches.
Its website, which went online Tuesday, is packed with pieces on energy efficiency, renewable energy, electric vehicles and companies reducing their carbon footprints.
Carefully footnoted, it cites authorities on the threats of higher temperatures, rising sea levels, dwindling water supplies and global instability.
Faison, who is 47 and a Charlotte native, glimpsed that future on hunting and fishing trips that increasingly took him into a warming world.
“The ducks come South later in the year, and the trout move upriver. You just notice these changes, and it doesn’t seem natural,” he said. “People who live outdoors notice, and these are changes that have just happened over the past decade or two.”
Polls suggest ClearPath will struggle to win over many conservative Republicans.
A Gallup poll in April found only 37 percent think climate change will occur in their lifetimes, Politico reported. Forty percent predicted it will never happen.
But Republicans who promote climate action insist conservative voters are ready, after years of polarizing debate, to listen to new approaches.
“If the question is posed – can free enterprise solve climate change? – then it can be enthusiastically answered, ‘You bet we can,’” said Bob Inglis, a former member of Congress from South Carolina. “It’s all about showing them a solution that fits with their values.”
Inglis leads the online forum republicEn.org, at George Mason University in Virginia, which focuses on free-enterprise solutions to climate change. He views Faison as the ideal messenger.
“He’s a businessman and a Republican, he’s handsome and articulate – it couldn’t be better positioning to turn heads and change minds on climate change,” he said. “This is not a San Francisco liberal who’s trying to dupe somebody into something they don’t believe.”
Faison’s own notion of success:
“American leadership solving the biggest problem we’ve ever faced. Many countries have solutions and are well past us, and doing it without doing harm to their economies. Americans can choose to do very little or we can choose to lead.”
Like his friend, ClearPath advisory board member Shannon Smith believes in commercial solutions to energy and environmental problems. Smith is CEO of Charlotte’s Abundant Power Group, which helps buildings pollute less and operate better.
The foundation’s message “has to be trustworthy and unbiased,” Smith said. “Republicans perceive the issue as biased due to liberal overreach over how to handle the issue governmentally. We missed the signal for the noise.”
Faison says he’s “tired of political rock throwing.” But he seeded a separate entity with $10 million to allow for more political participation.
“I’m pretty active in North Carolina now on what’s going on in Raleigh – that’s been interesting,” he said. “There’s a need for good, clear information in Raleigh, and we’re helping with that.”
Faison’s $10 million would be more than all but 13 super PACs and other groups spent on the 2014 elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group. NextGen Climate Action Committee, started by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, spent nearly $66 million in 2014.
“There’s no doubt (the money) will make an impact,” said state Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican. “If he wants to play in legislative races, it will make an impact on anybody who wants to have these chairs.”
The conservative-dominated legislature this year moved to freeze a green-energy standard that helped make North Carolina a national leader in solar power. It hasn’t viewed climate change as a pressing issue.
But some Republican members side with Faison on the science.
“There’s enough scientists saying we’ve got a huge risk here, we would be stupid not to protect ourselves from that risk. Even if they’re wrong,” said state Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Hendersonville Republican who once led the national Sierra Club.
Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who is co-sponsoring a bill to extend renewable energy tax credits, said the facts are beyond debate.
“To not believe in climate change is to say that there were never dinosaurs on the planet, that Columbus sailed off the edge of the Earth and that the moon landing occurred on a back lot in Burbank,” he said.