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James “Jim” DeBello is arguably the most tech-savvy candidate for Congress in the tech-heavy 52nd Congressional District.

Co-inventor of your bank’s mobile check-cashing app, the former Qualcomm and Mitek Systems executive boasts an impressive education — including a Harvard bachelor’s and MBA.

But when it comes to climate change, DeBello departs from the virtually universal stance of reputable scientists. He isn’t fully sold that a human-driven crisis exists.

Thus the only GOP entry in the coastal and central San Diego district differs from his main rivals — Democratic incumbent Scott Peters, a former environmental lawyer and economist, and Green New Deal advocate Nancy Casady, who thinks Peters isn’t serious enough on solutions.

Times of San Diego spent an hour with the first-time candidate at his favorite Liberty Station bakery in late November and followed up in the wake of that wide-ranging interview.

His responses on global warming reveal him to be walking a tightrope between GOP conventions and scientific consensus in a district that includes Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a Roman Catholic diocese with a bishop sounding the alarm.

Asked in November if climate change is human-driven, the 61-year-old* Point Loma resident said: “I don’t know the answer to that. … There is science on both sides.”

DeBello said accomplished scientists are skeptical of human-driven causes.

Jim DeBello says he's for an "ultimate goal" of 100% renewable energy but says "Oil and natural gas ... are essential to our prosperity and existence."
Jim DeBello says he’s for an “ultimate goal” of 100% renewable energy but says “Oil and natural gas … are essential to our prosperity and existence.” Photo by Ken Stone

“I think you have to take all opinions, and you have to figure out what makes sense,” he said. “People have said draconian measures will happen in 10 years. Do you believe that? Do you believe we’ll be under water in 10 years?”

So how does he communicate his seriousness to people, including teens who staged school walkouts in September, genuinely horrified about a looming disaster?

“Well, they may be ditching school but that’s not going to solve anything,” DeBello said. “Fine, there is a high anxiety among the younger folks. Because they’re listening to news reports and they’re exposed to this negativity.”

On his website, DeBello calls climate change “our ultimate environmental challenge.” But he adds: “Oil and natural gas (fossil fuels) are essential to our prosperity and existence.”

In a 600-word statement, though, DeBello in mid-December said he backs the goal of meeting 100% of power demand through “clean, renewable and zero-emission energy resources.” He didn’t specify a time frame.

In the Times chat, DeBello noted that the wind stops and the sun goes down, “so you can’t store it all on batteries because we don’t have that technology yet. And if you want that technology, you’ve go to mine lithium. If you want lithium, you go to China. … So that’s not the panacea.”

But he holds hope that more R&D investment will find alternative sources of renewable and clean energy — “stuff that we may not have even discovered yet. But to power down and take our style of living back to the horse-and-buggy [era] is not what I … support.”

In fact, he has a bone to pick with SDG&E and its new time-of-use pricing system that charges customers a higher rate on electricity in late afternoon and early evening.

“We have in San Diego from 4 to 9 power down,” he said. “OK, fine. Great. Sure. But that happens to be prime time when people get off work, come home, make dinner, wash the clothes, take care of the kids. Why are we doing this? Why are we surcharging our hard-working citizens between 4 and 9? Why aren’t we figuring out ways to create more efficient energy? And we’re not.”

(SDG&E spokesman Wes Jones noted that the switch to time-of-use plans with a 4-9 p.m. peak period is part of a statewide initiative to encourage Californians to use electricity when clean energy is most abundant or when demand is low. “We agree with Mr. DeBello that new technologies should be considered to create more efficient energy for customers,” he said. “We have been aggressive in building battery storage projects to absorb renewable power during the day and deliver it to customers at night.”)

Expanding on his interview responses, DeBello said in his statement: “Rather than the politics of climate, … I’m focused on practical, commonsense solutions for reversing the human impact that is within our control. Today’s patchwork of climate solutions are inadequate and many are economically impractical. … As a technology entrepreneur, I’ve seen firsthand the power of brilliant ideas, but it takes significant investment to which we must be ready to commit.”

DeBello wants to invest in carbon capture technologies, new biofuels and other “market driven incentives to change behavior,” including farm carbon sequestration, forestation and massive battery storage.

He called China, where he once lived and worked, a principle emitter.

“It is unreasonable to expect their conformance to Paris climate targets without meaningful enforcement mechanisms that are lacking in the Paris accords,” he said.

In the November interview, DeBello expressed sympathy to President Trump beginning the process of pulling out of the Paris climate accords.

“America should have control of its destiny,” he said. “The dictates of the Paris climate control had issues. … China and the hall pass that they got. Now they say they’re complying, but do you believe that? I think we should have our own policy (on) climate change management and something that is beneficial to us as Americans.”

Local political observer Carl Luna of San Diego Mesa College says DeBello’s climate-change stance helps him with his “uniformly skeptical/dismissive” Republican base.

But he says DeBello is in a classic bind — “he can’t move to the center on climate change to pursue independent, college-educated, younger suburban voters without risking losing support of his declining conservative (and older) base (that he can’t win without).”

Why do Republicans appear to be in lockstep on climate-change skepticism?

Luna gives a history lesson.

“Under George H.W. Bush, the GOP was considering creating a department of the environment and largely accepted climate science,” he said. “Over the past 30 years, dogma has increasingly replaced facts in a GOP increasingly driven by its anti-government, anti-elite expert, anti-science and authority libertarian don’t-tread-on-me wing.”

"As the representative for the 52nd District, I will work to unleash the power of accelerated innovation to ensure a sustainable environment with clean air, clean water and clean energy," Jim DeBellow says.
“As the representative for the 52nd District, I will work to unleash the power of accelerated innovation to ensure a sustainable environment with clean air, clean water and clean energy,” Jim DeBellow says.

Republicans view modern education and science as subverting traditional values, he said, secularizing a formerly religious society and failing to make secure or deliver the prosperity many (especially older) Republicans took for granted in their view of the “good old days.”

Conservative media and political campaigns have amplified these trends for power and profit, Luna said.

“This also poses a danger to the GOP because climate and science denial may work to gain votes in the short term but … facts have a nasty tendency to assert themselves (witness record coastal and farmland flooding, climate impact on crops, etc.), which could lead to a backlash against the party over time,” he said.

A contrasting view is held by Republican strategist Ron Nehring of El Cajon, the GOP county party chairman from 2001 to 2007 and state party chair from 2007 to 2011.

“Climate change is far more complex than our friends on the left assert,” Nehring said. “They routinely confuse weather for climate, and overlook the fact the climate has been changing for 4 billion years, well before SUVs.”

Nehring calls the extent to which human activity impacts climate a matter for legitimate debate.

“Further, the most effective course of action in response to any such impact is also a legitimate issue for debate,” he said. “For instance, California’s cap-and-trade law is a poor response because it needlessly drives up costs for Californians while having no impact on the climate of anything.

“And let’s not buy into the chilling effect when Democrats claim the debate is over concerning climate change or anything else,” he said via email. “That’s not the language of science — that’s what political people say. There is much debate to be had.”

Nehring, a 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor (losing to Gavin Newsom), says Democrats tolerate no internal debate on any environmental issues.

“It’s clear which party holds the extremist views in climate change,” he said, “and it’s not the Republican Party, which first and foremost is open to continually discussing the best approaches to the environment and energy.”

Congressman Peters and challenger-from-the-left Casady also reacted to DeBello’s climate change comments in the November interview.

“In this district, brimming with scientists and research institutions, including the Scripps Institute of Oceanography where the leading climate science in the world is conducted, climate skepticism seems out of place,” said a spokeswoman for Peters.

The four-term incumbent regards Trump’s climate change denial as setting the tone for many in his party.

“I can state, unequivocally, though, that Rep. Peters remains as committed and passionate about addressing our climate crisis as he has for the past 20 years,” said MaryAnne Pintar, a top Peters aide.

And regarding DeBello’s criticism of SDG&E efforts, she said: “I do not believe San Diegans view energy conservation as forcing them into a ‘horse and buggy lifestyle. San Diegans care about their natural environment and want to do their part to protect it.”

Candidate Casady says DeBello appears to be “completely ignorant about the true nature of the climate crisis” and pointed to solutions offered by Mark Jacobson at Stanford University and author Paul Hawkin.

“It is very disturbing that a person as seemingly uninformed as Mr. DeBello about the climate emergency is seeking a seat in Congress at this perilous time in our country’s national security history,” she said.

Casady called DeBello’s comments “politics-as-usual Republican rhetoric dressed up in newer clothing” of acknowledging the climate issue but claiming hands are tied on everything but a comprehensive energy portfolio that includes alternative forms of energy.

“We have to approach the climate crisis from every angle,” she said, “but our first priority is to stop making things worse,” saying the Green New Deal offers “an incredible opportunity to reboot our economy with millions in new jobs and reduction of health care costs related to effects of fossil fuel pollution.”

DeBello is thinking big as well, it turns out.

He recalls how “when the going got rough, America invested heavily to accelerate the Manhattan Project to protect our freedom and end World War II” via the first atomic bombs.

“Preventing climate change is even more complicated,” he said in his December statement. “It’s time to get beyond the politics and hyperbole, and get real about common sense solutions, greater investment in research, and incentives for good environmental performance.”

A strong America requires cheap and abundant energy, he said.

“As the representative for the 52nd District, I will work to unleash the power of accelerated innovation to ensure a sustainable environment with clean air, clean water and clean energy,” he said.

*An earlier version of this report gave the wrong age for DeBello.

First of two parts