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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