“If you give [corporations] the unlimited ability to participate in politics, it will skew everything because they only care about profits. You know, you look at climate change, that is people who are saying, ‘we’d rather make money than save the world.’ That is an amazing statement, and it’s happening today. And there are politicians supporting that.” —Tom Steyer, July 2019
Tom Steyer rose to fame as the most prolific Democratic political donor, willing to spend tens of millions to elect candidates committed to action on climate change. But he has divulged little about why he decided to end a successful career managing a multi-billion dollar hedge fund—with investments that included fossil fuel interests—to enter politics and the climate fight.
In a 2014 profile, he told Men’s Journal that he realized, “I really don’t want the highlight of my life to be my success as an investor.” His wife, Kathryn Taylor, said the couple became embarrassed in the mid 2000s that they were profiting from investments in oil companies, while committing themselves to environmental issues. In 2012, Steyer stepped down from his role at the hedge fund, sold his personal fossil fuel assets, and got involved in electoral politics.
Steyer’s chief climate accomplishments have come through his checkbook. The billionaire emerged as a climate-champion counterpoint to the Koch brothers, the conservative oil barons. In 2013, he devoted millions of dollars to candidates across the country, from the governor’s race in Virginia to county council elections in Washington state, who promised to take action on climate change or oppose fossil fuel development.
He founded the nonprofit NextGen Climate the same year to build a political movement around climate action, working on voter registration and mobilization. Since then, he and Taylor have given nearly $240 million to federal candidates, parties and committees, placing them among the nation’s top donors.
Last year, NextGen backed ballot initiatives in Arizona and Nevada that would require the states to get half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Voters rejected the measure in Arizona, but approved it in Nevada. In Michigan, his group withdrew a similar initiative after two utilities agreed to buy 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030.
- Steyer’s campaign published an extensive “Justice-Centered” climate plan that includes a commitment to declare climate change a national emergency and support for Green New Deal legislation. The plan aims for 100 percent clean electricity by 2040 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 across all sectors, including homes and buildings.
- Steyer says he would build a community-based network to inform his policies and a “Civilian Climate Corps” that would be funded with $250 billion in bonds over a decade and create 1 million jobs.
- His plan would commit $50 billion to wages and benefits to help fossil fuel workers to “thrive in a cleaner, more inclusive economy.”
- Without mentioning a carbon tax, Steyer says he would eliminate “all forms of government giveaways” to fossil fuel companies, “including unlimited and unpriced global warming pollution.”
- Steyer says he would commit $2 trillion over a decade to make infrastructure more climate-friendly and resilient, which he anticipates would mobilize an additional $4 trillion from non-federal sources. Half of the total would be focused on cleaner energy, industry and buildings, including modernizing the power grid and reducing methane emissions. About $775 billion would go into cleaning up transportation, including expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure, “electrifying every school bus in the country” and improving public transit.
- His plan also aims to make communities and the military’s infrastructure more resilient to climate change, while supporting efforts to improve disaster planning and response.
While climate change was the primary focus of Steyer’s money and activism for years, he has broadened his political scope since Donald Trump was elected president. He launched a new group in 2017 devoted to impeaching Trump, changed NextGen Climate’s name to NextGen America and began promoting his idea of “5 Rights”: to an equal vote, clean air and water, education, a living wage and health care.
In a video announcing his campaign for president, Steyer organizes these issues around a common root problem: corporate influence. His own wealth may be his biggest asset—a spokesman said he’s ready to spend $100 million on his campaign.