Tom Steyer talks climate change and the 2016 election

Kai Ryssdal and Daisy Palacios Nov 20, 2015
Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit 6.0

Tom Steyer talks climate change and the 2016 election

Kai Ryssdal and Daisy Palacios Nov 20, 2015
Tom Steyer introduces a panel during the National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on August 13, 2013 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit 6.0

Kai Ryssdal: Let me go first to the Keystone XL pipeline–a big, big win for you and what you’re interested in.

Tom Steyer: Well sure. We thought that Keystone was actually a fantastic win, but we thought that the biggest part about Keystone was that it was a fork in the road for the United States. That basically it was saying that we’re not gonna stick to the status quo, that we’re moving to a new clean-energy economy and so we’re gonna take a new path, and so that’s a fantastic thing in terms of us going for a new kind of solution to our economy.

Ryssdal: Not to get too into the politics of this, but you‘re satisfied it’s gonna stick even though we’re having an election in about a year and things could change?

Steyer: Yeah, I think that if you look at where Americans are in terms of clean energy, we’ve moved an awfully long way in the last six months and in the last year. I think the majority of Republicans are pushing for clean energy, and a very large majority of Independents and Democrats. So yeah, I think that we’ve pretty much made the decision to move on and start dealing with an economy powered by clean energy.

Ryssdal: Why did you decide that energy and climate change are where you’re gonna spend your money?

Steyer: Well I think that my general feeling about the United States is that democracy works and I’ve believed that my whole life, and my experience as a businessperson for 30 years was if you ignore the sound and fury, American democracy works if you give it enough time. And what I observed in terms of energy and climate is that it was a critical generational challenge for the United States and that for some reason democracy wasn’t doing its normal job of a lot of toing and froing, a lot of screaming and yelling, but basically letting the genius of the American people answer the question. I feel like there’s something wrong here that for some reason the system I’ve always believed in was not working and I was determined that if that was going to be our generation challenge, I wanted to be one of the people who worked on it and tried to solve it.

Ryssdal: There are those who will hear this interview, Mr. Steyer, and say, ‘But wait a minute, what you decided to do was manipulate the political process with your money.’

Steyer: Well I really think it’s a question of what you really want to do with your life and what you think is important in your life. From my point of view I felt that our generation of Americans was challenged to solve the problem and the question was what was holding us up, and the actual thing that’s holding it up is politics. So we’ve worked really hard to get the voice of the American people to be heard on this issue because we think if they’re heard, if they understand a problem and are allowed to think about it they come up with the right answer, and when they come up with the right answer they can insist on their way being followed and that’s what we’re for.

Ryssdal: I notice that you did not reject the premise of the question or in fact answer it. You’re trying to manipulate the political process with your money. You’re not the only one, but this is what you’re trying to do.

Steyer: I absolutely do reject that. We’ve spent the vast bulk of our money on voter-to-voter contact on people going door-to-door, on people speaking to other Americans and trying to have that voice be heard. So yes, I think that’s the traditional American political process and its organization and time and people. Yeah, those things cost money absolutely, Kai, but the fact of the matter is that is the traditional American political process and all we’re trying to do is facilitate that process so that Americans can decide, are we right or wrong. There’s no question of manipulation here. What we’re trying to do is have the issue be fully aired, have the solutions be discussed and let Americans decide.

Ryssdal: There are those who will say, and in fact let me just state the premise instead of couching it: Tom Steyer is the left’s equivalent of the Koch brothers. Discuss.

Steyer: (laughs) Ok let me start drawing distinctions. First of all, they have a lot more money than we do.

Ryssdal: I mean, but what’s a billion dollars between friends, right?

Steyer: Second of all what we have on our side is the facts and the truth. We recognize the implicit point that you’re making, that our system, while we trust in it and believe in it, is not perfect. Part of that is the Citizens United decision and the influence of money and politics. So the way we run our operation is completely transparent. We don’t hide anything, we are not self-interested. We are speaking up for what we believe to be the broad-based interest of American citizens; we have no self-interest and we’re not hiding anything. That’s completely different. So it’s true that we’re on the other side and our values are diametrically opposed to theirs in this instance, but the fact of the matter is that’s where it ends. Because the way we operate is to try and minimize any of the problems that are associated with the imperfection of how campaigns are financed.

Ryssdal: Are you denying that you have as much influence on the left as the Kochs have on the right?

Steyer: Well first of all I don’t see it in those terms at all. What we’re trying to do is not to speak to the left or the right, but to influence the amount of information that is delivered to American citizens so that they can make up their own minds. From our point of view it’s important that all of America moves, not just the left or the right, so when we see a move in America in the last six to 12 months in terms of how they view clean energy, it’s true that Democrats are overwhelmingly in favor, it’s true that Independents are, but it’s also true that Republicans have moved 12 percent in the last six months. This is not the partisan issue in terms of the electorate, in terms of American citizens that it’s portrayed in the press. It’s a highly partisan issue for elected officials and people seeking high office, but the American people are moving on this across the aisle.

Ryssdal: So why not then let the market work? If people want clean energy they’ll buy clean energy; if they don’t want dirty energy they won’t buy it. Why not let the market work instead of trying to influence the political process?

Steyer: Well there’s no doubt that what we want is a level playing field for every energy source, but that the key words there are “level playing field.” There’s two points I want to make. One, the cost of clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels in many instances and it’s only gonna increase. So in many places wind is the cheapest source of energy, solar is the cheapest source of energy, and those are technology-driven business where the cost has gone down, 80 percent in solar in the last five years and it’s going to keep going down. So when you say let the market work, the market is working. Over two-thirds of the new energy generation in the United States in 2015 is renewable. The issue is this: you want the market to work, but there’s the question of paying for polluting. If my job is to collect garbage in Los Angeles and the way that I do it is collect the garbage and dump it in Kai Ryssdal’s backyard, I may have the lowest cost, but you may not be so happy. But that’s what’s going on. If they pay for their pollution, let the market rule. I’m a 30-year businessperson. I believe in American business. I believe in American ingenuity and I believe in American innovation. I believe American business will solve this problem, but they need a framework that’s fair and that’s why this matters. We want a fair framework so American business can solve this in the way they solve every big problem, but politics matter. If you think the framework doesn’t matter I think that’s unrealistic and the framework right now is all behind the existing status quo businesses and they are pushing hard as heck to try and keep their advantages.

Ryssdal: And you’re pushing back. C’mon, be honest.

Steyer: I think very politely Kai, don’t you?

Ryssdal: Well you’re a polite guy, but you’re pushing back with your bank account, right?

Steyer: Well I don’t think that’s fair. I think what we’re pushing back with is the facts. All we’re trying to do is let people know about what’s going on in the world, what the costs are and what’s going to happen.

Ryssdal: But to say that you’re only pushing back with the facts and you spent $75 million in the last election cycle, I mean out of your own pocket, right?

Steyer: But honestly that’s a question of getting people on the ground talking to other Americans about what’s going on. Absolutely, that’s not free. Another word for politics in my mind is organization. You have to be organized, you have to get out there. It’s not just magic. It’s about organization and that’s not free.

Ryssdal: You, as you said, have been a businessman for 30 years, you’ve run a hedge fund, you’ve actually done this stuff on the ground. The question I have is how do you judge your return on investment in politics because while Keystone was a big win for you and your cause, in electoral politics and the last election cycle you didn’t do so well. So in the end, how do you add it up?

Steyer: If you look at the races we were involved in in 2013 and 2014, we about broke even or slightly higher than 50 percent win. And of course we want it to be 100 percent so I’m not trying to be disingenuous here, but the fact of the matter is that in 2014 it was a very tough year for Democrats. So we do care about wins and losses and we keep track of them, Kai, but the other thing I would say is look at how the country has moved. We are trying to use elections as a forum for people to pay attention, to understand that clean energy creates jobs, produces better health and is a way of making a fairer, more just America. So if you look at how Americans of both political parties and Independents are changing the way they’re thinking, something is happening here and I’d like to think we had a part in it. Because the fact of the matter is, Americans are coming around to the way that we think very, very fast. And that’s the other thing that we look at. We think that when the American people make a decision together that they want something, politicians have to listen to them, and that’s the process we believe in.

Ryssdal: You have recently shut down most of your big policy shops right? You’re climate action groups and that sort of thing. I wonder where you think your money goes farther, does it go farther in trying to influence actual policy? That’s to say coming out with new proposals and ideas, or does it go father in the political realm with direct political support?

Steyer: Well if you look at where we’ve actually been focused and where we continue to be focused, it is directly going to voters. So what we’re doing in 2015, for instance, our organization is on every campus in Iowa talking to young people about energy and climate. We’re on every campus in New Hampshire talking to young people about energy and climate and what it means for jobs and what it means for health and the kinds of problems we’re going to avoid if we do the right thing. So when we think about what’s effective, we think that policy is something that comes out of politics, but what we’re really focused on is the step before that, which is voters, American citizens, understanding what really is at stake here and why it’s important to them and the people they love. That’s what we spend our time on.

Ryssdal: I’m obliged to ask who you like in 2016. There was a piece out earlier this week that noticed your absence from the roll of Hillary Clinton supporters.

Steyer: I mean what we think, it is November of 2015. We have asked every candidate of both parties to give their solution to a progressive energy agenda. We’ve asked them to come up with a plan to explain how we’re gonna get 51 percent clean energy by 2030. So rather than choose a candidate to back, first we want the candidates of both parties to explain where they stand so we can get a fully fleshed-out understanding of the different ways that we could actually solve this problem. We’re at a point where we’re asking for solutions. We don’t want to hear about the science, what your opinion is. We don’t wanna hear about your good intentions. We think at this point the American people deserve to have a frank and competitive discussion about how to solve this. So from our point of view that’s the stage we’re at and that’s what we’re spending our time on rather than picking a horse. We feel like the American political conversation has got to deal with this. This is the chance for the American people to hear it fleshed out and that’s really important from our point of view and that’s what we’re focused on.

Ryssdal: Seriously, you haven’t picked a horse? C’mon.

Steyer: If we had we’d tell you, Kai. This is where we are. We believe that the American presidential campaign is the American political conversation. If you look back to healthcare in 2008, everybody had to discuss it, everybody had to argue about it, everybody had to listen to each other and adjust their opinions. And that’s what we think is important in terms of energy and climate. That’s what we believe in and that’s the process we’re going for.

Ryssdal: Here comes the put up or shut up question: Why don’t you just run yourself?

Steyer: We thought about…

Ryssdal: No, no not we. You, right?

Steyer: Okay, (laughs) I don’t want to seem too egotistical. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can have the most impact in 2015 and 2016, and I’ve decided that what we’re doing, the organization we’ve put on the ground in several states, including my own home state of California, that that is the way we can best engage Americans on this topic and what we’re trying to do is make sure that this is a topic that Americans understand and care about so they come and make the best decision, and that’s what we’re in favor of. You know I can’t think of something more important than doing that.

Ryssdal: It has to be said here that when you were running your hedge fund, you made a whole lot of money in oil, gas and fossil fuels before you decided you didn’t like oil, gas and fossil fuels.

Steyer: It is absolutely true that we invested in everything, including oil, gas and fossil fuels, and it was less than 10 percent to be exact, but it definitely mattered. What I’d say is this: I studied the issue, I realized what was going on and I changed my opinion. And there is no one in the United States of America who hasn’t been a part of the economy driven by fossil-fuel energy. Absolutely nobody, including me. But the fact of the matter is that what we need to do is exactly what I did, which was look at the situation, understand what it means and make a change in attitude. So I’m not asking anybody to do anything I haven’t done and I’m not villainizing people for not having done it yet. I’m saying we have to take this fork in the road, we have to move in a different direction and we have to change the way we think to be able to do that. So sure I changed my mind because the facts became clear that we had a big problem, we weren’t dealing with it and it was up to citizens to change their mind and take action. As my friend George Schultz likes to say, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.”

Ryssdal: There’s a question I’m asking everybody as we talk about the 2016 election over the next year, which is basically what your conversation with me was about, and it goes like this: So the American economy, it’s $18 trillion worth but it’s made up of everybody’s individual economies and what they feel about it. I need you to disassociate yourself from your money and your background and give me the everyman answer to this question: How do you feel the average American’s economy making $53,000 or so a year, how do you think they feel out there today?

Steyer: I don’t think there’s any question Kai. I think that average Americans have gotten hammered over the last decade. I think that the real income of the average American hasn’t even been flat, the further down in income level you go, the worse it’s been. There’s no question that the traditional American attitude that as long as the national GDP grows everyone shares is no longer true. So I think it’s absolutely critical that as a country we accept that and start to think about how we, as a country, we change what’s been going on when there’s been such a disproportionate sharing in the success of the country overall. But that’s a big part about why we care so much about energy and climate because what our mission is is to act politically to prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for all Americans. So when we look at the idea of a clean-energy economy, we’re looking at an economy that creates good paying jobs for working people and that’s a huge part of what we’re talking about. We just did a report that showed that promoting clean energy creates a million new jobs by 2030, net. And those are good paying jobs for middle-class, working Americans. That’s one of the reasons we care so much about this. We know that middle-class people are getting hammered. We don’t see a single growth vision that doesn’t include redoing our energy infrastructure. When we talk about energy efficiency in California we have 600,000 commercial buildings. Somebody’s got to go in and redo them. Those are jobs for human beings. When we talk about 50 percent renewable generation in California, we’re talking about solararrays that someone has to build, we’re talking about wind farms that someone has to build. Those are jobs for Americans. We’re talking about creating a much more just America and sharing the wealth, much more equitably. So we have not missed that point. I think that America is crying out on that point.

Ryssdal: I know you’re saying you’re not running, Mr. Steyer, but that sounds a whole lot like a stump speech.

Steyer: Well, you know if any citizen cares about their country and feels about it emotionally and speaks up, if that sounds like a stump speech then maybe we’re all running, maybe there are 300 million Americans who care about it.

Ryssdal: Tom Steyer, thank you very much for your time, sir.

Steyer: Kai Ryssdal, thank you very much.

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