A Call to Action - From microphones to megaphones, from boardrooms to street rallies, Tom Steyer is at the heart of change

November 20, 2018
December 2017

For a man who once relied on compounding to turn a $15 million investment into a $30 billion fund, Tom Steyer is remarkably impatient. In the last five years, since leaving the hedge fund world, Steyer has campaigned tirelessly and spent millions to focus the political agenda on climate change solutions. His patience is running out. “If you believe what I believe, what are you doing playing golf today?” Steyer’s activism stems from something more resolute than goodwill alone. The former manager of Farallon Capital speaks with unapologetic candor in a manner that conveys a plain-old sense of duty. “When I left Farallon five years ago, I was under the impression that there was a very high likelihood that, for political reasons, society was putting the globe at risk,” explained Steyer in a November phone conversation with GCA. “Therefore, how could I not try and do something to make sure that people were safe and healthy moving forward?

If you believe what I believe, what are you doing playing golf today?

Well before Steyer left Farallon in 2012, he held deep-seated beliefs about the need to address the risks posed by climate change. 07 For the then hedge fund manager, the question wasn’t whether to act, but rather how. “I started to pay a lot of attention to this over ten years ago,” Steyer explained. “I approached it in a bunch of different ways I thought might be helpful. In the end, my conclusion was that the actual problem was political rather than technological or scientific.” Still busy managing $30 billion AUM, Steyer began backing environmental and climate related policy, both through large donations and direct legislative campaigns. His first well-publicized political engagement came in 2008 when it was discovered that he donated large sums to the Obama campaign, galvanized by the candidate’s embrace of renewable energy. Then in 2012, he co-led the campaign to protect California’s clean energy law, AB 32, from a potential repeal. Since then, his leadership as a climate policy champion has made him a regular name in the public sphere. He was the largest donor on either side in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and he continues to leverage his press coverage to speak out against regressive climate policy (among other issues). In his discussion with GCA, Steyer also acknowledged the importance of private sector innovation as “the engine of change” capable of mitigating climate change. Perhaps, most importantly, Steyer explained, “Business is particularly important in understanding what [solutions] are possible.” However, “in the absence of setting up the right political framework, we can cause a degree of suffering that is unimaginable.”

Assuming we win this fight, I will take great pleasure and great pride in having been part of it.

That conclusion motivated Steyer to found NextGen Climate, an organization that has spent upwards of $170 million (much of it Steyer’s own money) advocating for policies and politicians that help the environment and support clean energy. Officially, NextGen is dedicated to “act politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity, and protect the fundamental rights of every American” (the organization changed its name to NextGen America in July 2017). As Steyer’s motivation to take political action has grown, so has his scope of activism. Increasingly, he views the consequences of climate change as part of a much larger environmental and social equity problem. “I don’t think you can separate environmentalism from a much broader justice agenda,” Steyer stated. “For a lot of people, understanding climate science is not something they want to spend time on. What they do want to think about is what is going to impact themselves, their families, their communities and the people they love.” Ultimately, it seems Steyer’s innate sense of justice implicates his own responsibility to fight for sustainable policy. “I am an extremely lucky person for a whole bunch of reasons. This is an opportunity for me, and also for society at large, to participate in doing the right thing for the most important issue of our time. I would like to feel like I am part of the large group of people who can see the right and insists on acting in the right in the clutch. Assuming we win this fight, I will take great pleasure and great pride in having been part of it.”

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