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This businessman thinks he can change the GOP’s mind on climate change

Jay Faison (Lisa Bynum)

This week, heads turned when the news emerged that a conservative Republican and successful businessman from North Carolina was investing $175 million in an overall effort to focus attention on climate change and clean energy and, in particular, to get conservatives to change their minds on climate change.

The businessman is Jay Faison,  founder of SnapAV, an audio-visual equipment company that was recently acquired by investment firm General Atlantic. It’s the third business that Faison launched and sold — his bio calls him a “serial entrepreneur.” But now he’s moving into a different game — with $165 million to endow a foundation, ClearPath, focused on clean energy and climate change, and another $10 million dedicated to a 501c4 organization that can engage in lobbying and get involved in campaigns.

“We want to move people away from the ‘are we causing it,’ and into the, ‘how are we going to solve it,’ ” Faison said Tuesday in an interview.

He also explained his outlook on 2016, where he thinks climate could be a major issue in the general election, and that those who want to appeal to swing voters and millennials will have to show “visionary leadership based on solutions to big problems.” Faison seems particularly inspired by a coming encyclical on the environment expected from Pope Francis, noting that “there’s a good argument to be made that losing Catholics will lose you the election.”

Bob Inglis, a former South Carolina Republican congressman whose climate change conversion cost him politically, says he’s known Faison for about a year and that he’s, basically, the perfect climate messenger to other Republicans.

“I think he can be the Tom Steyer of the right on climate change,” says Inglis. “His profile is just terrific for getting people to turn around on the issue and to listen to somebody that they can hear it from, because for conservatives, we can hear it from Jay Faison.”

For Inglis, that’s because Faison is 1) from Charlotte, N.C., 2) a successful businessman, and 3) a Christian. You can’t knock his conservative credentials on any of these fronts.

“It helps that he’s from Charlotte, and it helps that he made money in a business we can understand,” says Inglis.

ClearPath itself presents a rather deep dive into all things energy and climate, citing partnerships with the Rocky Mountain Institute, World Resources Institute  and other sources of expert information and analysis. The foundation says it “simplifies the oftentimes complicated and emotional debate over what to do about climate change.”

For Jerry Taylor, the libertarian founder of the Niskanen Center, which supports a carbon tax and is trying to win over voices on the right to the policy, Faison is part of a new and important trend. “He’s not the only Republican who is increasingly willing to buck party orthodoxy and to put in resources to counterbalance those being invested by other people in the party” in climate skepticism, Taylor says.

Taylor cited, as another example, Andrew Sabin, a GOP donor whose family foundation also gave Columbia University $ 3.5 million to found the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, and is reportedly supporting Jeb Bush in 2016.

“You’re seeing signs that I haven’t seen before of wealthy Republicans who’ve decided that climate change is a significant problem, the party needs to adjust,” says Taylor, who says Faison has supported the Niskanen Center. “We haven’t seen so much of that before.”

Faison appears influenced by the push, by conservative thinkers like Taylor, for a revenue-neutral carbon tax that would set a government fee on emissions, but return the proceeds to Americans in the form of tax breaks or a dividend, rather than adding the revenues to the federal budget. But his site comes up short of endorsing it as the only route towards finding a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, also presenting other options like cap-and-trade plans.

“There’s been a lot of name calling and command and control proposals from the left,” says Faison. “And that’s been pretty unhelpful, and created a lot of skepticism on the right. There’s a whole menu of options around market-based solutions.”

The high profile launch of ClearPath emerges early in a campaign season that has featured a major focus on the climate views of different GOP candidates, ranging from Sen. Lindsey Graham, who seems a clear climate science endorser, to Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently claimed that the world has seen “zero warming” in the past 17 years.

And then there are a number of candidates who fall somewhere in between, including Jeb Bush, who has not denied human causation of climate change outright, but also accused those who argue the case is closed with “intellectual arrogance.” (That climate change is overwhelmingly human caused is the consensus scientific position.)

Even as this struggle within the party builds, so does the momentum behind the climate issue. A papal encyclical expected next week could shake up domestic climate politics considerably, and there are myriad signs that a very warm year could be developing in 2015. Meanwhile, NOAA researchers have just announced that the leading climate “skeptic” argument, the idea that global warming has “paused” or slowed down recently, appears to be a simple artifact of incomplete data analyses.

The momentum will only grow as the end of the year nears and the world focuses on Paris, where global leaders will meet to try to hammer out an international agreement on carbon caps to keep the world within the “safe” range of less than 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

In sum, Faison’s ClearPath emerges at a time when the climate issue appears more unstable, more in flux, than ever before for conservatives. It’s also a time when the tone is beginning to change and outright denial is becoming harder and harder to maintain — but the shift away from it is far from complete, and it would be foolish to underestimate its tenacity.

In this context, ClearPath won’t singlehandedly change anything — but it does look like it could be part of a wave.