May 14, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Climate-change funders shift focus amid pandemic and election

Amy Harder, author of Generate

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A group of wealthy donors that has funded far-left climate activists is now beginning to support interests pushing more moderate ideas.

Why it matters: The development shows the rising prominence of centrist climate-change policies in light of Joe Biden beating Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential contest and the coronavirus pandemic thrusting economic worries to the nation’s front-burner.

Driving the news: The Climate Emergency Fund, which has donated to such activist groups like Extinction Rebellion and 350.org known most for crowded (and sometimes illegal) protest actions, is now funding a new effort called the Coalition for Sustainable Jobs.

  • Co-founders and donors to the fund include Rory Kennedy, daughter of Sen. Robert Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy, and Aileen Getty, granddaughter of oil billionaire Jean Paul Getty.
  • The coalition, which has support from several other moderate interests like evangelists, hunters, fishers and young conservatives, will push for clean-energy and climate-change provisions in economic stimulus bills that Congress debates.

What they’re saying: “When COVID hit, and it became very apparent we couldn’t support people going out in the streets right now and the impact this has had on the economy, we all kind of looked at each other,” said Kennedy. “We were looking at Washington where they were releasing literally trillions of dollars, and it felt like we were at this precipice and we can go one way or another.”

How it works: The Climate Emergency Fund isn’t putting much money into the coalition yet — just $100,000 — but Kennedy and Trevor Neilson, another donor and co-founder of the fund, who also runs an investment firm, say they’ll put in more money if the effort makes inroads.

  • The new coalition features several moderate, nonpartisan and conservative groups, including the Evangelical Environmental Network, American Conservation Coalition and Conservation Hawks.
  • The coalition is now pushing for any economic recovery packages to include relatively narrow clean-energy and climate-change policies, such as energy storage and those supporting the role of rural America and agriculture.

The big picture: Leaders in the progressive and climate-change movements have long clashed about how aggressively to tackle the problem and whether to engage Republicans — who have mostly denied the problem for at least the last decade.

Between the lines: The internal machinations here reflect that tension. Kennedy and Neilson said they may continue funding groups like Extinction Rebellion and 350.org, which could rankle some of their new coalition partners.

  • “That will probably bother me,” said Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president of the evangelical group. Despite the group's past support for groups like that, Hescox said, "the biggest thing is ... that we’re building a center right coalition, and it’s the kind of thing that needs to go forward.”
  • Benjamin Backer, founder of American Conservation Coalition, called such funding a “red flag,” but ultimately said he didn’t want some disagreements to stop him from working with them.
  • Todd Tanner, head of Conservation Hawks, said only funding from fossil-fuel groups would bother him.

What we’re watching: Whether this coalition actually makes a difference in a very crowded space of other climate efforts and, you know, the global pandemic.

Flashback: In September 2019, the NYT reported on the fund’s support of climate protests.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to show the correct spelling of Trevor Neilson's last name.

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