When the history of the climate change era is written, Tom Steyer will likely get more than a footnote. He might even get a whole chapter. But in many ways, being one of today’s most powerful advocates in the fight against climate change is an unlikely fate for a guy who—not long ago—was a big-time hedge fund manager. Since stepping down in 2013 from his own multi-billion dollar investment firm, he’s been busy re-purposing his wealth. His new project: NextGen Climate, a political organization that is—among other things—spending millions of dollars to help candidates who back urgent action on climate issues.
The Allegheny Front: You’ve been called a Democratic version of the Koch brothers—the billionaire industrialists who frequently back Republican candidates and are pretty staunchly against action on climate change. Is that an apt comparison?
Tom Steyer: Whether what they’re doing is explicitly for their bottom-line interests or just happens to line up with their bottom-line interests, the fact of the matter is what we’re doing is something that what we think is good for the country. There is no way to show in any way shape or form that it helps anybody’s bottom line who works at NextGen Climate—because it doesn’t. We really believe in transparency. We think there’s a huge problem with money in politics, and one way to mitigate that problem is to say what you’re doing, to be straightforward and to make sure you report everything to the government so that people can see what you’re doing. And that’s something that they just don’t do. They work as secretly and quietly as possible—trying to hide what they’re doing to prevent people from knowing who they are and who they’re supporting and why. I quit my job four years ago to do this full-time because I thought there was such a big problem that needed to be addressed. Whatever else you can say, those guys still are full-time business people who have a political agenda of their own.
AF: You know you’ve been criticized for having investments in fossil fuel industries, including coal. Now you’re basically trying to work against those industries if they’re adding to the climate change problem. People have called you hypocritical for doing that. How do you see it?
TS: I think if you get new information, you change your behavior. So we invested in everything, and energy is a huge part of American—and worldwide—business. But then I started to get really concerned about this, and I divested from anything having to do with fossil fuels. I think everyone, including me, knew there was a problem, but I expected the American political system to solve it. And as it kept not getting solved, I started to get more involved in examining both what the problem was and why it wasn’t getting solved. So from my standpoint, if you get new information and act on it, is that somehow a conflict of interest or talking out of both sides of your mouth? I think that’s ridiculous. What I’m asking everyone in the United States to do is exactly what I did, which is to look at the evidence and change our behavior based on it.
AF: Was there one thing that pushed you in this direction?
TS: What really happened was sometime about 10 years ago, I was struggling with what was going to be the biggest threat to the country. I don’t know why I was thinking about it, but I somehow got obsessed with that question. And I thought, well, this is obviously it. And I started to think about what I could possibly do to help. I started by trying to fund some technological research; like, maybe this is a tech problem, and if I gave some money to some scientists to come up with some technological fixes, that is how it will work. And then gradually, I got more involved in thinking about why this wasn’t being solved in the normal American way. Americans are famously loud and contentious, but we face up to our problems. We figure out solutions—maybe they’re compromises—but we move on together. We’ve done that for several hundred years. The question was—why wasn’t that happening here?
AF: And in your mind, why wasn’t it happening?
TS: It was to no one’s advantage to solve this. The biggest industry in the country, which made hundreds of billions of dollars in profits every year, was depending on the status quo staying the status quo. And they were going to do whatever they could to make sure that was what happened. That’s what the Koch brothers are: [They] want to keep running the country exactly the same way because it was super profitable for [them]. And there was nobody on the other side saying—‘Oh, there are new industries we can create’; ‘We have the technology to solve this.’ And so I felt, well, someone has to do that, and maybe I could be part of that solution.
AF: The fossil fuel industry, at least in this state, can paint you sort of as a ‘type.’ You come in from the outside, you have a lot money and you’re pushing an agenda that could cost some people in the state their jobs. How do you respond to that?
TS: Let me respond to the idea of what you just put forward, which is that people like to frame clean energy as being opposed to fossil fuels. The fact of the matter is, we have a huge project in the United States to rebuild our energy infrastructure in a way that will create millions of net jobs. So what we will do will make America richer, it will make its citizens better off, it will net a couple million new jobs and it will save us money. So on a gross basis, it’s a plus all the way around. The problem is—and it’s a real problem—there’s a transition there. Part of the way capitalism works is new ideas come in and they destroy old ideas. And when they destroy old ideas, they destroy the industries that supported those old ideas. That means that jobs are destroyed, and that is bad. In the United States, it is important that as that happens, we protect the people who went to work in those industries just to have a decent wage and support their families. They have done nothing wrong. But we have to do it. If you look at the projections—if we do nothing for this sector—it will destroy 36 percent of our GDP. That’s the analysis. That’s where we are going. This is not something that’s going to happen. This is happening.
AF: Your group is spending a reported $25 million across several states, including Pennsylvania, to get out the youth vote. Why are you focused on young people?
TS: I think all of them grew up knowing this was going to be a huge issue in their lives. Not somebody else’s lives, not some child of theirs or grandchild of theirs—in their lives. So I think they all know the science; they all know what’s coming. They all think this is something where I want to vote for someone who’s going to do the right thing.
AF: You are backing Katie McGinty as your candidate for one of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seats. She has been attacked by some in her party because she does not favor a ban on fracking. And those same people say that as head of the Department of Environmental Protection under former Governor Ed Rendell, she brought fracking to Pennsylvania. Is McGinty where you would like her to be on these issues?
TS: In elections, it’s always a choice. You very rarely get the Supreme Being running for office. You get a human being running against another human being. And Katie’s much better than her opponent. She’ll be a very fine U.S. Senator. Does she say every single thing that we would like? Probably not. But the fact of the matter is she’s very progressive on energy and climate. In comparison, she’s hands-down better.
AF: Earlier, you mentioned the influence that money has on politics. In your opinion, what can be done about that?
TS: We think Citizens United was one of the great mistakes of the Supreme Court over the last 220 years. We think money in politics is really scary and that there should be a reform. We also know people on the other side of the energy issue will always outspend us. We’re in a situation where the Supreme Court freed up corporations to spend, and we will be massively outspent. What we’ve tried to do is field work—not using TV ads, but much more organizing on the ground. So whether it’s knocking on doors or tabling at universities or calling people up on the phone and talking to them, we’re trying to get people talking to people. That’s how we think Americans have traditionally come together on the biggest issues of the day.
UPDATE: October 11, 4:20 p.m.
Bill Riggs, spokesman for Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch Brothers-supported Super PAC that has spent $7.2 million in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race to help defeat McGinty, responds:
“We believe in a level playing field and equal opportunity for all Americans, which is why we oppose all forms of special interest handouts and corporate welfare across the board. Katie McGinty leveraged her public position to benefit directly from the kinds of special interest handouts to wealthy and well-connected companies that she supports.” (McGinty has said that her private sector work gave her real-world experience that would help her in government.) Riggs says Freedom Partners discloses its donors and supports “advancing a free and open society for the mutual benefit of everyone, not just a select few.”