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Rifts are forming in the GOP on climate and clean energy. Here’s how they could be exploited.

green elephant
The most difficult political origami.

Last week, I wrote about new research showing that partisan polarization on climate change is worse than ever. In a nutshell, fewer than half of US Republicans acknowledge anthropogenic climate change or worry about its impacts.

This is rather alarming for people who would like the US political system to take action to address the problem. And at least a few of those people are Republicans.

Take North Carolina billionaire businessman Jay Faison, who announced last year that he was setting up the ClearPath Foundation to put $175 million toward convincing Republicans and moderates to support market-based climate change solutions.

That involved a large-scale public education campaign — advertising, social media, policy analysis — and also a PAC (the ClearPath Action Fund), to intervene directly in politics.

This June, Faison pledged $5 million to support a slate of Republican incumbents that he identified as champions of clean energy, including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio and Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Here is Faison’s theory of change, as conveyed to Coral Davenport at the New York Times:

What we’re trying to do is prove to the party, through these races, that clean energy wins races, to build a political safe space for the Republican Party to talk about this. It is difficult for a politician to consistently act in an area with no reward. We have their back.

This is sensible as far as it goes, but it still seems woefully inadequate to the task.

First of all, as Davenport notes, these candidates have broken with their party on a few climate or clean energy votes, but they are hardly champions of the issues. They have received dismal scores from the League of Conservation Voters. (ClearPath says LCV is biased.) In almost every case, they are less aggressive on those issues than their Democratic challengers.

lcv scores
Ohio’s two senators get very different LCV scores.
(OEC Action Fund)

More to the point, though, the simple fact remains that electing a Republican majority to the Senate or (especially) the House guarantees inaction on climate and clean energy, no matter how Portman or Ayotte might vote. Electing a majority gets you the party, and as long as the overwhelming bulk of the institutional and financial incentives incline the party against climate and clean energy, the party will, institutionally speaking, oppose them.

Faison needs to change the party. In that sense, he’s a very small David going up against a very big Goliath.

It got me thinking about what sorts of political interventions might carry a little more oomph, a little more symbolic weight.

What’s needed above all are signals from conservative leaders in politics and media that there’s a way to care about this stuff and still retain your conservative identity. Most people care far more about their identity than any particular issue; if leaders they respect start shifting on climate, they will shift too.

So what kinds of interventions might send the right kinds of signals? Here are three possibilities. (Email me if you have better ideas.)

A fiscally conservative carbon tax in Washington state

This November, citizens of Washington state will vote on I-732, a ballot initiative that would impose a substantial and rising carbon tax in the state, peaking at $100 a ton out through 2050. (It would be the largest, longest-term carbon tax ever implemented.)

The tax would be "revenue neutral," which means that all the revenue raised would be automatically returned — it would reduce the state sales tax, reduce business taxes, and fund the working families tax rebate. The measure wouldn’t raise any new discretionary funds for politicians to spend.

There’s lots and lots to say about I-732 — I’m working on a longer story about it — but what’s relevant here is that it was designed to appeal to fiscal conservatives. There’s no net increase in taxes, no net increase in government revenue. It is exactly the sort of thing that green conservatives have been advocating.

Better yet, the state’s lefty groups mostly oppose I-732, precisely because it is revenue neutral. (Yes, the left is opposing a climate tax. Read my upcoming story.) This would be a chance for Faison to advocate for conservative climate policy in the face of explicit left opposition — the perfect way to signal to conservatives that there is a conservative side of this argument, a conservative policy solution that doesn’t rely on denying climate change and doesn’t require becoming a lefty.

With his financial help, it might even pass.

So where is he? Why isn’t he touting the measure to fellow conservatives or funding what is an extremely cash-strapped Yes on I-732 operation? This is green-conservative-billionaire gold.

Side note: These next two are about wind and solar, respectively, so it’s worth noting that Faison is not a big fan of wind and solar. He’s decided that nuclear, hydro, natural gas, and CCS are the "conservative clean energy pillars."

Insofar as green lefties overemphasize wind and solar, this seems like the same mistake in reverse. More to the point, it seems to me that clean energy solutions stand or fall together to a certain extent — unless the necessity of reducing carbon is acknowledged by both parties, no form of clean energy will ever get the support it needs.

But anyway, if Faison doesn’t want to defend wind and solar, another green conservative billionaire (if there is one) should take these next two.

Donald Trump versus Sen. Chuck Grassley

Donald Trump is, notoriously, opposed to wind power. He really seems to hate it, on a personal level.

Meanwhile, Iowa is one of the top wind power states in the nation, part of a growing number of purple and red states with clean energy hubs. Consequently it’s home to Republican defenders of wind power, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, who said just a week or two ago that Trump would get rid of wind power "over my dead body."

Here is a rift within the party on the subject of clean energy — a perfect opportunity for Faison to step in. Helpfully, the anti–clean energy side is represented by Trump, a figure loathed by many Republicans, while the clean energy side is represented by a longtime, rock-ribbed Republican. This is one of those crossroads moments when leaders are split and party faithful are genuinely uncertain of how they’re supposed to break.

If I were a green conservative billionaire, I would jump on this — buy ads in Iowa and DC supporting Grassley, defending wind power’s virtues, and tying clean energy opposition tightly to Donald Trump.

Conservative opinions on clean energy are still mutable; this is an opportunity to visibly signal that clean energy support is perfectly consonant with conservative identity.

Conservatives fight for solar power in Florida against government-backed monopolies

The fight over solar in Florida is quite intriguing. The Green Tea Coalition, a collection of conservative grassroots groups, has been lobbying in the state for more rooftop solar. They see it as a means of personal energy independence, being blocked by state-sponsored monopolies. Green Tea is not the biggest player in the state’s solar fights, but it’s a real presence.

(Green Tea Coalition) (Green Tea Coalition)

Last month, Floridians voted on Amendment 4, a ballot initiative that removed some unusual and onerous taxes on solar installations. (It won, decisively.) In November, they will vote on Amendment 1, the "Smart Solar" amendment, which is in fact a crudely deceptive effort by utilities to limit solar power.

Again, this is at least the beginning of a rift in the conservative coalition. The old money (think Koch Brothers) backs powerful incumbents against clean energy challengers. But grassroots conservative groups want the independence that comes with generating their own electricity.

What if someone with the money and profile to make a big splash entered this debate, called out the Kochs, and fought Amendment 1 on behalf of Floridians who want energy independence? What if someone took on the sclerotic, monopolistic electricity industry on explicitly conservative grounds? Sounds like a role for a green conservative billionaire.

Shifting the conservative coalition will be a long fight

I don’t claim that these sorts of interventions would magically shift the GOP’s institutional stance on climate and clean energy. But they could be steps in that direction.

Expanding the conservative identity so that it has room for climate concern will require more than just donating to the few Republicans who occasionally make mildly supportive noises about clean energy, as Faison is doing. That’s too little signal against too much noise.

Shifting the GOP will require more public interventions, dragging the debate out into the open, signaling to conservatives that there is a model for on-the-ground conservative climate action — that it’s a live option. Many of them simply don’t know that.

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