The Billionaires on Both Sides of Climate Change

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Businessman Tom Steyer listens during a meeting to announce the launch of a group called Virginians for Clean Government at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013. The group was formed to explain the impact of CONSOL Energy not paying royalties to their family and neighbors as well as speaking out against Ken Cuccinelli's acceptance of $111,000 in CONSOL contributions.  (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Tom Steyer in Richmond, Va., Sept. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

The New York Times’ Nicholas Confessore recently reported that Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager, is campaigning to get President Obama to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. He plans to spend $100 million (or more) during the 2014 midterm elections supporting candidates with strong environmental platforms and opposing politicians such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott who deny the reality of climate change. He hopes to raise $50 million from like-minded wealthy individuals to match $50 million of his own money. Confessore reports that Steyer, a Democrat, is hoping to build the prevention of climate change into an issue that all Americans will get behind.

[Steyer is] seeking to upend the partisan split that has come to infuse the climate debate. In their advertising and research, Mr. Steyer and his aides have sought to craft appeals that would reach beyond affluent white liberals on the coasts. Ads in California were tailored to Hispanic voters by emphasizing the negative health impacts of power plant emissions. In the Virginia governor’s race, [Steyer’s political advocacy organization] sought to show that a Democrat could win with a message emphasizing “green” job creation over one emphasizing threats to the state’s coal industry.

Articles on Tom Steyer cast his politically active family — including his wife, Kat Taylor, and his brother, Jim — as a liberal analog to the Koch brothers. The Kochs have spent heaps of money since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling seeking to influence public opinion and political decision-making on an array of issues, ranging from health care reform to climate change to deficit reduction. Like the Kochs, Steyer started his life as a political spender with a handful of issues, but, unlike the Kochs, he has homed in on just one. In a piece published last September, New Yorker Washington Correspondent Ryan Lizza asked Jim and Tom Steyer about the validity of the Koch comparison, and Tom pointed out another difference: Unlike the Kochs, he doesn’t stand to profit from his political position.

Jim Steyer told me that a friend had asked him if he and Tom were aspiring to be the Koch brothers of the left. “Yeah, I like that!” Jim replied. Tom dismissed the analogy. “I completely disagree, because what they’re doing is standing up for ideas that they profit from,” he said of the Kochs. “We think we’re representing the vast bulk of citizens of the United States. We’re not representing our pockets.” Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and advocate, who has met extensively with Steyer to discuss the strategy against Keystone, said, “After years of watching rich people manipulate and wreck our political system for selfish personal interests, it’s great to watch a rich person use his money and his talents in the public interest.”

But regardless of the differences in motive and approach between the Steyers and the Kochs, Fred Wertheimer, a long-time advocate of campaign finance reform, tells the Times that a political world where billionaires set the agenda is not a democracy. “This is about as far away as we can get from ‘representative government,’” he said. And when it comes to politically active billionaires, it would seem that there are more who profit from inaction on climate change than who want to see that action happen — not a good sign for those who agree with Steyer’s politics.

Furthermore, Obama doesn’t currently see the changing climate as the biggest challenge facing America, as the Steyers do. The New Yorker article relates a speech in which the president said just that to a group of wealthy donors hosted by the Steyers:

He reminded his audience that many Americans don’t share the views or the culture of Steyer’s guests. “The politics of this are tough,” he said. “Because if you haven’t seen a raise in a decade; if your house is still twenty-five thousand, thirty thousand dollars under water; if you’re just happy that you’ve still got that factory job that is powered by cheap energy; if every time you go to fill up your old car because you can’t afford to buy a new one, and you certainly can’t afford to buy a Prius, you’re spending forty bucks that you don’t have, which means that you may not be able to save for retirement.” He added, “You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern.” To some in the room, it seemed that the President was speaking for himself. He never mentioned Keystone. “The clear takeaway for Tom was that the President issued us a challenge,” one of Steyer’s political aides said. “Go out there and make the public-policy case as to why this pipeline is not in our country’s best interest.”

The brothers Steyer saw a parallel, according to Lizza, between Obama’s “challenge” and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s statement to labor activists after his election in 1932: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it,” Roosevelt said. He was speaking to leaders in the labor movement, many of whom were former factory workers, some of whom were socialists. They were the Americans capable of building a movement to push the president toward action. Obama was speaking to a room full of millionaire and billionaire campaign donors.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Brian Novotny

    Good, we need quite a few more like him who put what is right first ahead of personal gain. Greed is the number one problem facing us today, and it is influencing every aspect of our lives in negative ways, and unless something gives, and soon, all heck will break loose. Reminds me of the old phrase, “Self Will Run Riot”, well we have that and much worse not only among Republican Politicians but the majority of their supporters.

  • Anonymous

    It is meaningless for the person with a job today to fill his car with cheap gas to run around increasingly like a chicken with his head off to satisfy the would be next billionaire that will never corrupt the system enough to join that narrow crowd. It is meaningful to understand his willingness to sacrifice going slower and more mindful toward his next tank knowing doing so gives his family a better chance and more meanignful future tied to better quality of life and others.

  • Anonymous

    Knowing our battle for clean air and better planet is being faught at a higher level always helps us cope. Tom S has to know he speaks for us all that care and the future. He also may understand how high he reaches for riches beyond the narrow ones it seems the Koch are held up in.

  • JonThomas

    Yep. I follow this through to every last expense and action. Where to eat? What to buy? How high to turn up the thermostat?

    Where was a product made? What type of labor may have been involved? What was the environmental and social impact?

    In short, if those way up the chain of hands, who will eventually get my money are advocating against my interests, then whom shall I support?

    Even equality of opportunity is a sham.

    If those who have the loudness of speech (emanating from large bank accounts) have determined that a laborer in this society isn’t worth a living wage, then by default through the type of harsh world they desire, which restricts even the basic needs of life, neither are those same societal engineers worth a living wage. They are offering an undesirable product.

    I will stop any and all unnecessary financial interactions which in any way support the powerful. I will not work to better their positions at all. I will seek to hinder their profits and their actions. If the lowest are worthless and not fit to live, then my virtue and my humanity requires me to side with the powerless.

  • Anonymous

    We have to leave carbon in the ground or humans won’t be around no matter how rich you are.

  • Anonymous

    Hopefully more of the newly rich will get behind his work or work like it.

  • NJHope

    What is terrible about this is that we have to care at all what this guy does. Instead, we should be able to TRUST our President and Secty of State to do what is good for the nation’s people. I know that is not a totally lost cause, but it sure takes a heckofalot of work to make them listen at all. I’m exhausted from trying. The Kochs and this guy should not matter, but they do because the Supreme Court says they do. You know what I think about the right wing of that court? I can’t say it here.

  • pennyroyal

    thanks for acknowledging how ‘exhausted’ you are and many are. I find it discouraging and all but demoralizing, too–at times.

  • Anonymous

    This is like that novel that Ralph Nader wrote, Only the Superrich Can Save Us Now, which is kind of a sad testament to the influence money has gained at the expense of democra, that Ralph Nader who has dedicated his life to fighting corporations would come to such a conclusion. We’re pretty far gone. It shouldn’t be about what billionaires decide to do, it should be about the common good. All the same, I appreciate what the Steyers are doing. The whole world is being held hostage by the fossil fuel industry and I would daresay the whole system of extractive capitalism as it’s currently practiced. I’ve wondered for a long time if rich people think they can eat money or if they have another planet in reserve someplace when they finish trashing this one. Finally someone with the resources to fight back who actually has a conscience to do so. But still, it’s like we have kings and we shouldn’t have to depend on this. But thank god. Maybe this crazy tilt towards doom can be stopped if one of these guys gets involved. These are the ones who matter, these are the ones who will be listened to, not the little people just trying to get by on their jobs.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. Hopefully we can be pulled back from the precipice of our immanent destruction and then afterwards we can do something about inequality and no industry or billionaire with an agenda, like building the KXL pipeline, can ride roughshod over everyone’s health and well being again!

  • Tom Moran

    Steyer chiefly made his money off of Oil and Gas stocks. Nothing to see here folks. Move along. The pause in warming should cost about $100,000,000 to explain away….

  • Jack Wolf

    I think it’s already beyond that. Climate change is irreversible at this point and therefore we are on the expressway to human extinction. Sorry, there are no upcoming exits on the expressway. We either crash or go extinct.