Meet Tom Steyer, the Angel for the Environment

While wealthy donors to the Democratic party often cringe at participating in the "big money" campaigns elections have become, as long as the Koch Brothers (and others) pour in insane amounts of money, they have little choice but to play the game.

Luckily, the environment now has a champion in Tom Steyer, who made billions running one of the world’s top hedge fund firms. He’s already donated more than $42 million to get the California Clean Energy Jobs Act passed and to support candidates that want to take action on climate change and who reject the Keystone pipeline.

Steyer’s PAC, NextGen Climate Action, is building to a scale that can compete with the Koch Brothers’ conservative political network – no small feat. The PAC could spend as much as $100 million in the 2014 midterm elections, giving the environmental community a rarity – deep pockets.

But the Koch Bros amassed some $400 million for the 2012 elections and promise that’s only the beginning. With their web of some 90 supposed nonprofits (that the IRS does not go after!) they are extremely hard to catch up too – and really, who wants to?

Tom Steyer:

Tom Steyer

"We are incredibly grateful and excited, because we need more environmental money in politics," Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters, told Washington Post. They meet regularly with Steyer to discuss campaign strategies, Karpinski says.

Another billionaire, former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also has his own PAC, but it focuses more on gun control. He too has climate change as a priority, donating $50 million to close coal plants and creating NYC’s climate plan. For the next two years, he will serve as Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change for the UN with a goal of helping the US to shepherd through the elusive international treaty on climate change next year.

Steyer, Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson are working together through their organization, Risky Business. Currently they are quantifying the economic costs that unmitigated climate change will present in the US.  

Steyer also co-founded Advanced Energy Economy, through which business leaders promote clean energy technologies and the think tank, Next Generation, focused on climate and energy issues and childhood education.

It’s a sad state of affairs in the US, where elections could increasingly come down to battles between wealthy individuals, but until Citizens United is reversed, those that don’t want to see environmental and social values completely squashed at least need a level playing field.

On the environment, the League of Conservation Voters spends the most on elections and it’s a pittance – the $15 million they spent in 2012 is a joke compared to the hundreds of millions from special interests on the other side.

Steyer’s focus on campaigns "signals a shift within the environmental movement, as donors – frustrated that neither Democratic nor
Republican officials are willing to prioritize climate change measures – shift their money from philanthropy and education into campaign vehicles designed to win elections," says the New York Times.  

"The [Democratic] party is afraid to fight the fight, because they’re afraid to lose more conservative Democratic votes," philanthropist and donor Wendy Abrams, told the NY Times. 

Besides electing the right candidates, Steyer produces ads with a goal of diversifying the base that prioritizes the environment. TV ads in California, for example, reach out to Hispanic voters by emphasizing the negative health impacts of power plant emissions. In Virginia, where NextGen helped win the recent  governor’s race, it demonstrated that a Democrat could win with messaging that emphasizes green job creation rather than threats to the coal industry.  

This week, Steyer is hosting the fundraiser, "Blue Green Council Dinner" at his San Francisco home to raise money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. One of his goals is to convince them that opposing Keystone will bring voters to their side, reports Washington Post.

At the Democratic Governors Association, Steyer will speak on a panel where he will urge states to create regional partnerships (like the Northeast’s RGGI) to regulate power plants emissions.

You can great insight into who Tom Steyer is as a person by watching this video, which has been on Bloomberg TV this week –  Titans at the Table:

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