Green Giant

   < < Go Back

by Tom Steyer,

from TIME Magazine,

He made his fortune as an investor. Now he’s spending millions to level the climate debate. Will his party go along?

Nothing comes free, not even for the President of the United States. So when Barack Obama appeared at Tom Steyer’s San Francisco home for a fundraiser last year, the President had to know there would be an ask. The 56-year-old Steyer is a hedge-fund billionaire and a major-league Democratic donor. He is also convinced that climate change is the biggest threat facing the world–an argument he made clear to Obama that night, when he pressed him to cancel the Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline. “Every generation gets one issue not to muff, and this is the one we can’t muff,” says Steyer. “This is it.”

… the President pushed back, warning the well-heeled crowd of donors about the challenging politics of fighting climate change in an age of economic anxiety. “If you’ve still got a job that is powered by cheap energy and you certainly can’t afford to buy a Prius, you may be concerned about the temperature of the planet,” Obama said. “But it’s probably not rising to your No. 1 concern.”

Not even close, as it happens. A March poll by Gallup found that climate change ranked near the bottom of national priorities, with the general level of worry about the environment at the lowest mark since the firm began measuring it in 2001.

That’s what makes Tom Steyer’s crusade so challenging–and to him, so necessary. At the beginning of 2013, he stepped down from his hedge fund, Farallon, to focus on the climate fight full time. He’s pledged to spend $50 million of his own money and some $50 million more he plans to raise on the 2014 midterm elections, backing candidates who take climate change seriously–and punishing those who don’t.

Given all the vitriol environmentalists have directed at conservative megadonors like Charles and David Koch, the liberal celebration of Steyer’s spending can seem a bit naive. “If this is the way it goes, rich people like the Koch brothers and Tom Steyer will be the only ones driving the issue agenda,” says David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund.

Steyer does not seem too conflicted. He spent some $8 million helping Democrat Terry McAuliffe narrowly defeat Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia gubernatorial race last year. Cuccinelli was certainly a worthy target–as Virginia attorney general he waged war on climate scientists–but McAuliffe wasn’t exactly deep green himself, supporting oil drilling off Virginia’s coast.

Hard-nosed realism–and the money to back it up–is what sets Steyer apart in environmental politics. Take his campaign against Keystone. While activists like McKibben have decried the carbon emissions the pipeline might cause by speeding development of Canadian oil sands, Steyer’s TV and online ads warn that Keystone would be used to ship oil abroad to China and that American consumers would get nothing more than higher gas prices. It’s not an argument anchored in reality–the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column gave a recent NextGen ad on the subject four Pinocchios–but it fits Steyer’s larger conviction that the economy needs to be as big a part of the climate message as the environment. “Sometimes you need to take the fight that’s there,” says Steyer.

So far, the campaign has not changed the basic political hazards of the Keystone issue for Democrats. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 65% of Americans favor construction of the pipeline while only 22% oppose it.

More From TIME Magazine: