"You're asking how hard I will push. Really hard."
Tom Steyer talks with HEATED about his new role as Joe Biden's "climate engagement advisory council" chairman.
In November of last year, California billionaire and climate activist Tom Steyer stood on a debate stage in front of a televised audience of more than 6 million people, and name-checked Joe Biden for not being aggressive enough on climate change.
“I’m the only person on this stage who will say that climate change is the number one priority for me,” he said. “Vice President Biden won’t say it.”
Biden hit Steyer back, saying he did in fact believe climate change was “the number one issue;” and that he didn’t need “a lecture” from his “friend” because Steyer used to fund coal mines with investments from his hedge fund. (Steyer has said he regrets those investments).
In that fight, the former vice president came out the victor. Steyer dropped out of the race in February following Biden’s resounding win in South Carolina’s primary. Steyer formally endorsed Biden two months later—but urged the former vice president that his campaign needed to “improve his standing with millions of young voters who care deeply about climate change and income inequality.”
“They’re going to have to reach out on climate—and show Joe Biden understands how important stopping climate change is, understands environmental justice at its roots, which he does,” he said.
Now, Steyer is getting what he wants. Last week, he was named chairman of a Biden’s new campaign initiative to mobilize voters who prioritize climate change and environmental justice. The six-member “Climate Engagement Advisory Council” hopes to convince the estimated 30 million climate voters across America not to stay home on Election Day, which is in less than four months.
In an exclusive interview with HEATED, Steyer spoke about how he plans to motivate young, Black, and minority voters across the country to go to the polls—and whether he’s the right person to do it. He admitted the council is lacking youth representation, and pledged to seek it out. He said he intends to keep pushing the vice president “really hard” on climate issues, just as he did on the debate stage; though he wouldn’t say whether he’d push Biden to explicitly support a Green New Deal.
All that plus much more is in our Q&A featured below. Enjoy!
Emily Atkin: I don't know if you remember this, Tom, but you and I once shared a very small airplane to go to Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada about six years ago.
Tom Steyer: Oh, my God. Yeah. You know, I was just talking about that trip. I think about it a lot.
EA: I think about it a lot, too. We should talk more in-depth about it sometime.
TS: Absolutely. It made me think differently about some of this stuff. And it made me think differently about the whole—well, this is a longer conversation.
EA: Let's do that for another time. I know you only have a little bit of time right now, so let's focus on the advisory council.
You've been given a pretty important role. You’re chairing a coalition aimed at mobilizing voters who prioritize climate change and environmental justice. There are potentially 10 to 15 million “super-environmentalists” who don’t regularly vote in this country, according to the Environmental Voter Project.
So I have to ask you—and this is not to discount your work or contributions or commitments by any means—but given that you are a billionaire white guy baby boomer, why are you the right person to lead a coalition focused on mobilizing people around environmental justice?
TS: Well, let me say this. It is a group; it's not just me. If you look at that committee, it's quite a diverse group of human beings with diverse backgrounds.
In terms of me, I've always believed this is at the heart of climate politics and policy; that unless you have environmental justice and leadership from Black and brown communities where pollution is concentrated at the start and at the center of what you're doing, you won't have the right policies. And you can go back and see what I was saying, and what the campaign that I was co-chairing in 2010 on No on 23 was saying, which is that this is at the heart of a justice based climate policy, environmental policy, the environmental justice policy.
If you look at where the heaviest concentration of environmental justice and climate awareness is, it's in people under the age of 35—which, as you so impolitely pointed out Emily, I am not.
TS: But I did start NextGen America, which is the largest voter mobilization organization for people under 35 in American history. And so, you know, it's sort of funny. You're absolutely right. My goal in all of this is to push the power to young people, to the environmental justice community, the Black and brown communities, to leadership from there to give them the power to let them take the reins so that we actually get the right policies and get things done. And that's the goal of this committee. To get those people's voices heard and to let them hear what the Vice President has to say.
I think he's actually very, very good on these issues and really relates on a human level to the injustice of concentrating pollution in Black and brown communities, and the health hazards that result. Joe Biden is going to be a great champion for them.
EA: I totally was not trying to be impolite, by the way, I just had to ask the question.
TS: No, no, I was teasing. That was a total joke.
EA: I know, I just had to say it.
TS: I think I’m funny, and that’s a problem.
EA: Well I definitely relate to that.
But let’s focus on young Americans for a moment. I remember being on that trip with you to Fort Chip, which was part of your NextGen work, and I remember there were a lot of young people on your team. So I know your work has surrounded youth and communities and color in the past, because I've been there.
But I do notice that there don't appear to be any young Americans on the Biden climate advisory council. So I'm wondering how you intend to use this council to engage youth around issues of climate?
TS: Well, I think it's going to be really important, actually, to do that. You know, that's what NextGen does, and that’s the history I have from an organizing standpoint. I founded that group for just this reason, because I think people under 35—not just millennials, but also Gen Z—those are the biggest number of people in the United States who are voters. They are the most diverse generation in American history.
There should be a young person on the council. I think that for us to make this work, we're going to have to absolutely have young people directly involved in this. I think you make a good point, Emily.
I agree with you. I think it's absolutely critical for us, if we're going to reach out effectively, that we have leadership on there of people who are under 35. You're absolutely right about that.
EA: Awesome, I hope to see that happen then.
Let’s turn to the communities most affected by climate change. Obviously, young people will be more affected than older people. But so will racial minorities, particularly Black people. Those groups consistently report higher concern for the environment and climate than white people. But at the same time, they're underrepresented in mainstream environmental groups; less likely to identify as environmentalists; less likely to participate in outdoor recreation.
Why do you think that is? And how do you plan on engaging and mobilizing those communities?
TS: I think there is an absolutely critical, urgent, kitchen table aspect to environmental justice—which is talking about the ability to raise your kids without asthma, without them missing school, without missing sports, without missing screwing around outside. It’s the same with clean drinking water. Everybody knows about Flint.
There are a million people in California who basically have to live in Flint-like conditions. A million. That's just my state. When you go to Southern states, if you want to talk about environmental justice, talk about water. Go down to South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, to rural parts of the country and see that the water conditions are terrible. So when you say, how can you motivate people—people are motivated. This is a question about connecting them with the Vice President.
When I think about this election, I see it differently from the way it gets reported in the press. I believe the question in 2020 will not be, “How is Emily voting,” but whether Emily votes at all. The question is, are they motivated to show up at the polls? It’s not whether they’re motivated to care about drinking clean water or breathing clean air. That motivation is there.
EA: I'm glad you brought that up. I've heard from a lot of people—especially in my newsletter community, which tends to be people who already care about climate change, already care about clean water and clean air—that they are demotivated about the election.
There are a lot of people who don't believe there is a meaningful difference between Trump and Biden when it comes to the climate, in part because Biden has had advisers with ties to the fossil fuel industry, advisors who have profited in some way from fossil fuels. These people feel like it's going to be the same old, same old. How do you plan to convince them that it's not like that?
TS: I totally take your point, Emily. I think part of it is just about exposing those people to the Vice President, hearing what he actually says, and hearing what he’s doing and what he cares about.
Take a look at the people on this climate committee. There are no people with ties to the fossil fuel industry. And I don't know if you noticed, but I want to point out that in May, the vice president said he would not renew the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. Nobody pushed him to do it. He just did it. And to me, that's always been so important, as you know from that trip we took together. This is a substantial strategic point about whether or not Alberta is going to get to develop the third-largest oil reserves in the world and put it on the world markets. And people didn't really always get that point. Joe Biden obviously did, and he acted on it.
So, if people don't see the difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on climate change, I believe they just need information. Because there is a yawning gulf of difference. We actually have a president right now who has appointed oil, gas and coal lobbyists to run the environmental apparatus of the United States of America. So, you know, take a look.
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TS: You know, I think there's something else going on here too, Emily. Think about what's happened in the last week, stopping three major pipelines. We are winning this argument in the United States of America on a broad, grand scale. We are seeing this argument being won by environmental justice people. But indigenous people leading the movement. By climate activists in Virginia, North Carolina, and the Atlantic coast. By economists. By judges across the country.
And so when I look at what we have to do, it’s less about stopping the growth of fossil fuel infrastructure, because we’re winning that. The question is, what are we going to do positively to accelerate the move to a carbon neutral future? And honestly, I think if people understand where Biden is on that, that’s really at the heart of what he stands for and what he wants to do as president.
EA: There is a divide among among Democrats on some climate policy issues, fracking bans in particular. How far are you willing to advise Biden to move on policies that would lead to really dramatic cuts in the production and use of natural gas, including its transitional use to the manufacture of plastics?
TS: You know, I look at the heat of the planet and the parts per million of carbon in atmosphere daily. And that's sort of interesting. But the thing that gives me real urgency is what's going on with the permafrost. Basically, we’re getting into this feedback loop that we can't get out of.
You're asking me how far I will push. Really hard. Because to me, there’s gigantic urgency. And we have the tools to do this now better than people understand. And definitely, much better than people expected.
We have to stay out of these positive feedback loops. Once we’re in them, I don’t know what we’re going to do. But I know we have the ability to move very, very, very fast. And it's going to be good for us economically, and great for us from a health standpoint, and important for us from a racial, environmental justice standpoint.
The argument against it is, “You're hurting the bottom line of Exxon.” And it’s like, OK. I care about that, why?
EA: The vice president has said he supports the concept of a Green New Deal, but not the Green New Deal specifically. Will you advise him to say he supports a Green New Deal?
TS: From my standpoint, the point here is priority, speed, and impact. I think the vice president comes at this on a human level, and so do I. When I think about why we need to get this done, it’s to avoid massive human suffering and undo injustice and protect the lives of health and the safety and the futures of people across the planet. This has got to be a huge priority for the next president. Full stop.
Every question you've asked me is the message. But we do 15 percent of the greenhouse gases in the world. If we aren't in the leadership of a global coalition, this is not going to happen. You know, this is a vice president who's very focused on international events. If we aren't talking climate policy with the Chinese and Indians, you know, if we're not talking climate policy with the Europeans, this isn't going to happen.
We need real leadership here. There is a yawning gulf between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on this. This is the difference between a healthy planet, safe people, and unhealthy planet, people in dire trouble.
EA: I know we’re way over the 15 minutes I was supposed to get, and I appreciate that. So just one more question. Could you tell me really quickly what the next move of this coalition is going to be? What actions are coming next?
TS: We’re going to set up meetings connections between environmental justice communities, environmental justice leaders, the vice president and climate-oriented voters, including specifically young people. And I take your point: we need good representation from people under the age of 35.
EA: Great. Keep me posted on on your activities. I’d love to keep everyone else posted, too. I appreciate you taking more time than I was given.
TS: Of course. Nice to reconnect, Emily.
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