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The Heat 2020

Tom Steyer’s Never-Ending Fight

The former presidential candidate discusses climate change campaigns, bipartisanship and his support for Joe Biden.

Judith Lewis Mernit

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Photo by Gage Skidmore

A decade ago, when hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer jumped into the political fray to defeat an anti-climate ballot proposition in California, hardly anyone knew who he was. Now, after nearly two years of television commercials calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment, which ramped down when he announced his bid to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Steyer and his iconic plaid tie have become sufficiently famous to have parody accounts on Twitter. Last week I talked to Steyer, who sold his financial firm, Farallon Capital Management, in 2012, about his latest efforts to promote climate campaigns, advise former Vice President Joe Biden on climate policy and about his attempts to work with Republican legislators. “I use a lot of old expressions,” the 63-year-old Steyer told me. “And on bipartisanship I say, ‘It takes two to tango.’”


 
Capital & Main: You’re now on former Vice President Joe Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. You were critical of his climate plan in the primary debates. Has that changed? And why?

Tom Steyer: Honestly, one of the really good things about the vice president [is that] he recognizes that climate is a human issue. This is about humanity. He is really good at relating to people around health, he’s really good at relating to people around job creation and job loss. He understands on a gut level [some]thing I used to say in 2010: That most people in this state did not like 11th grade science class. Why keep dragging them back in there and saying, “Sit down and shut up, I’m going to lecture you about this.”

Still, many younger voters are resistant to him.

I think they don’t know that much about Joe. He’s much more knowledgeable about this than people understand. Do I think that his policies have gotten more progressive over the last six months? Yes. And I think part of that is him sharpening his pencil, because he’s been working on his plan, consulting with people, and he’s been listening.

This might be a moot point after the two big rulings on pipelines last week. Energy Transfer, the company that owns the Dakota Access Pipeline through the Midwest, has been ordered to empty the pipeline by August 5 pending environmental review. The Keystone XL expansion has been blocked, too. But a few months ago the Keystone XL pipeline opponents were bothered that Biden hadn’t signed the NoKXL Pledge to reverse Trump’s executive order approving the pipeline on day one. And then in May –

He did come out against it.

Right — two months ago. The campaign came out and said he would stop it for good. But some people still worry. Court decisions can be reversed. And Alberta Premier Jason Kenney last week said Biden could be swayed to support the Keystone XL. Do you expect him to stick to his promise?

Okay, look. A couple things. First, he was part of the Obama-Biden presidency that blocked KXL in the first place. Second, he did not have to make that statement saying he was against the Keystone pipeline. He did that of his own volition. I look at this and say, he gets this. He understands why this is a strategic issue for the development of the third-largest oil body in the world.
 


“We cannot build one more piece of oil and gas infrastructure.”


 
And let me say this about these court decisions. I think it’s fantastic. I said for years, we cannot build one more piece of oil and gas infrastructure. Building 40-year projects for stuff that is already wrong now and will be ridiculously wrong in 10 years is not a good use of money.

And Dominion Energy in Virginia canceled an $8 billion pipeline for natural gas.

What happened in Virginia and what happened with Dakota Access is that people are understanding that the protests are never going to stop. The deep opposition is never going away. This is why you can’t give up.

Dominion made a business decision about returns on their investment in that pipeline and decided not to go ahead. But their business decision was heavily influenced by us not giving up. We have a completely different motivation than they do. We’re not going to say, “Okay, you won a court case, go ahead and destroy the planet.”

When we lose, we double down. When they lose, they have to walk away.

You’ve given a lot of support to climate candidates in the past, with varying degrees of success. In 2014, just three of the seven candidates your climate advocacy group, NextGen America, backed won their races. But in 2018, the nearly $64 million you spent has been credited with helping to usher in the “blue wave.” What’s new about what you’re doing this year?

This year is kind of an extension of something we’ve been doing for a few years with the League of Conservation Voters and the National Resources Defense Council. The idea was to organize climate donors and environmental donors around the country to support strong, active candidates. And to do it in a way that those candidates knew why they were being supported – it wasn’t just anonymous support. We’ve been doing that through GiveGreen. In 2018, that organization was responsible for more than $20 million of hard money going to strong environmental and climate candidates around the country.
 


“There’s no way to separate environmental justice and racial justice and economic justice and environmentalism.”


 
Doing this is an effort to organize this community more generally. This is not a community that has had success at the federal level. This is a community that is just starting to have success at a lot of state levels. Being organized together, working together, recognizing that we’re really pulling on the same oar is what GiveGreen is about. We should be organized and united, not fractious and competitive.

How has your advocacy evolved over the years?

One evolution has to do with NextGen, [which] I founded eight years ago. It’s now overwhelmingly focused on young voters, with the largest youth voter mobilization effort in American history. That is the biggest generation in American history, and the most progressive, the most diverse generation in American history, hugely motivated by climate and justice. But they vote at half the rate of other American citizens.

Another evolution has been, starting 10 years ago, to include environmental justice as a critical element of any environmental policy. Now we’ve expanded that to say there’s no way to separate environmental justice and racial justice and economic justice and environmentalism. It’s one big ball of wax, and to the extent you separate it, you’re doing a disservice to the people involved and to the ideas involved and to the outcomes.

I imagine your wife, Kat Taylor, is a big part of that. I’m always seeing her at meetings in out-of-the-way places about community water and air issues. (Disclosure: Taylor is a financial supporter of this website.)

Kat’s been out front on environmental justice for as long as I’ve known her. From working on sustainable food production solutions and regenerative agriculture to running Beneficial State Bank to empowering and supporting small businesses owned by people of color, she’s pushed me in many ways to make sure environmental and racial equity are front and center in everything.

How are you vetting your climate candidates? Are people coming to you, or do you have people combing through all the contests looking for candidates who fit the bill?

Well, I think, first of all, a lot of these people have very well-established records. Sen. Ed Markey, for instance, co-authored the Waxman-Markey bill. The Green New Deal was put out by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the House and Ed Markey in the Senate. He has a long history on climate. But what we’re also trying to do is find people around the country in critical races.
 


“There is no one in the state of California who is related to a polar bear. If you think that’s a voting issue, let me promise you, it is not.”


 
If you look at Sara Gideon, for example, who is challenging Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, I think we all have to note how that’s a critical race in the United States of America for our future, and we happen to have somebody who’s terrific. If we find a critical race with somebody who’s terrific, we want to get that person as much support and notoriety as we possibly can. That’s always been our goal in all of these: Not just to support people but to support really good people whose election is gonna make a huge difference in terms of some specific outcomes.

You won an unlikely victory in 2010 with the No on Prop 23 campaign, which would have paused California’s climate law during the recession. And you won it by a pretty big margin.

Sixty-forty!

We said, “This is not a science project. This is not a science dissertation.” We were talking to human beings about what counts.
 


“Republican elected officials will not walk away from their big money supporters. Mr. Trump appointed oil, gas and coal lobbyists to key environmental positions in the U.S. government.”


 
One of the things I used to say in 2010 was “There is no one in the state of California who is related to a polar bear. So, if you think that’s a voting issue, let me promise you, it is not.”

You used to believe in bipartisanship. You worked with former Secretary of State George Shultz in 2010, and with some others in the GOP camp as well. Is that still possible anymore?

That’s right. When I started, everything I did I tried to do on a nonpartisan basis. I included Republicans like George Shultz, like Hank Paulson. Mike Bloomberg has been a Republican and then became an independent. At the time when I worked with him he was definitely not a Democrat. And I specifically did that because I wanted to say [climate action] is something that is just good. This is good for Americans. This is good for people across the states, especially good for black and brown communities. It’s especially good for people who need a job. I don’t want the environment thrown into a partisan framework.
 


“You don’t hear Mr. Trump get up there and make an anti-climate argument, because there isn’t one. This is literally, ‘Does smoking cause cancer?’”


 
And Republican voters agree with me. If you read Pew Research or the research coming out of Yale, you know that Republican voters know we have a climate problem. They want clean energy and want the government to step in. Across the board.

So what happened? How did Republican politicians, in your view, fall so out-of-step with the country on environmental issues?

The issue is straightforward political corruption. [A significant share] of  Republican campaign dollars come from oil and gas sources. As a result, Republican elected officials will not walk away from their big money supporters. Mr. Trump appointed oil, gas and coal lobbyists to the key environmental positions in the United States government. They all got Senate confirmation down the line from Republicans.

You seem surprised by that.

I naively believed that if we could show that [cutting greenhouse gas emissions] is good for America in every single way, this would be the equivalent of World War II. People would fight to do the right thing for all of us. And honestly, I haven’t seen it. I’ve seen the opposite.

Republicans seem to think that it’s amazing when one of them accepts the fact that the climate is changing. But that conversation is over. I ain’t having that conversation. There is no other respectable side of this conversation that is possible. You don’t hear Mr. Trump get up there and make an anti-climate argument, because there isn’t one. This is literally, “Does smoking cause cancer?”

There’s no other side of that argument. There’s just money. There’s just the deepest corruption threatening the health and safety and livelihood of every single American. So when you want to walk away from that money and have a conversation about what we can do together, I’m totally good to go.


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