Billionaire Tom Steyer Wants to Prove That Fighting Climate Change Can Save the Economy


Climate change may be a global problem, but one of California's wealthiest philanthropists and Democratic donors hopes to prove that the state's local solutions are the key to fighting it.

As negotiators from 195 countries gather at the United Nations' annual Climate Change Conference in Paris to hammer out a deal to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming, they'll be joined by a small but powerful delegation from California, one that includes a movie star, a hedge fund executive turned environmental activist and a handful of lawmakers who have helped make the state a polestar for green-minded economies.

"California is an example of a large economy that has some of the most progressive energy laws in the world," Tom Steyer, the billionaire founder of NextGen Climate and longtime Democratic donor and fundraiser, told Mic. "The economy is healthy and we're putting people to work. It's important to tell the California story — why it works politically, why it works from a policy standpoint and why it works from an economic standpoint."

Though the Golden State delegation is not directly involved in the negotiations in Paris, Steyer hopes the group — which includes former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, current Gov. Jerry Brown and a host of other tycoons, lawmakers and activists — will be able to permanently deflate one of the most enduring criticisms of climate change treaties and legislation: that they inevitably damage the economy.

"If you set up the right framework for American business, they are the most innovate, creative force in the world," said Steyer, "and we can solve this problem in ways that no one's imagined."

Nick Ut/AP

A leading example: California is the world's eighth largest economy, and its continued growth is projected to outpace that of the rest of the United States for the rest of the decade.

At the same time, the state has instituted some of the most aggressive emissions standards and clean-energy targets in the world to stem California's contribution to the global effects of climate change. In 2006, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order requiring the state's utilities companies to "serve 33% of their load with renewable energy by 2020." The order also established the first so-called "cap-and-trade" program in the United States, setting a limit on emissions and creating a market for carbon allowances.

To Steyer, the coexistence of a booming state economy with meaningful clean-energy and carbon output goals is proof a green economy is a healthy economy — and that arguments to the contrary are, in his words, "baloney."

"This is an old, unsubstantiated argument, which [climate-change skeptics] think that if they repeat it long enough, loud enough and often enough, will have some credibility," Steyer said. He said the notion that emissions regulations and renewable-energy mandates will cripple economic productivity is based on outmoded understanding of economic and scientific progress.

"The fact is, moving to clean energy creates a million net new jobs in the United States by 2030," Steyer said. "If you had said five years ago that we really can move to renewables, people would have looked at the current costs and said, 'We can, and it will crater the economy.' That is not true, and if you understand how technology-driven cost curves work, it's going to be cheaper next year, and it's going be cheaper the year after that. This is an inexorable and relentless move. Their argument, if it was ever true, is based on the world never improving."

Given that the loudest critics of renewable energy feasibility in the United States have tended to be prominent members of the Republican Party, Steyer, who contributed $75,424,834 to Democratic candidates and causes last year, has even less patience for the argument.

"To me, the ironic part of this whole conversation is that the so-called 'Party of American Business' is sitting there and loudly screaming that American business can't solve this problem," he said. "They have absolutely no confidence in America's ability to innovate, drive down costs and come up with better solutions. And we're sitting here, and saying, 'We always have done that! That's what we do!'"

Laurent Cipriani/AP

Unique challenges, unique solutions: Just as California has been at the forefront of legislative and political efforts to curb anthropogenic climate change, the state has been forced to grapple with some of the most dramatic examples of its impact.

Although California has always been subject to melodramatic acts of god — an old joke posits that California's four seasons are earthquake, fire, flood and drought — recent events are pushing the resilient state to its limits.

A four-year drought has done $2.7 billion in economic damage to the state in 2015 alone. Rising global temperatures may have already contributed to wildfires of increasing size and intensity — of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state's history, 13 have occurred in the past 15 years. Nearly half a million people and $100 billion in property along California's coastline are at risk of flooding as sea levels rise. 

If the state were to do nothing, Steyer said, it would be a slow-motion suicide.

"This is the generational threat to our country and the world, and although some things are going incredibly well, this is the threat that can upend all of that," he said. "We have a huge drought, and we also have very bad air quality that's associated with the kinds of pollution often associated with climate change. We can see impacts — we have 3.3 million Californians who have asthma related to dirty air. We can see in people's lives, as well as in the economy, that business as usual with regard to energy and climate is something that's going to be destructive."

But California's climate of innovation means while the state is uniquely susceptible to climate change, it's also perfectly situated to address its effects. More than $27 billion in venture capital was doled out to California cleantech companies between 2006 and 2014; the state's solar energy industry employs nearly 55,000 people.

"The cost per kilowatt hour of creating solar energy and wind energy has come down 80% in the past five years," Steyer said. "Solar, per kilowatt hour, creates eight times more jobs than fossil fuels ... moving to a clean-energy economy creates jobs, increases take-home pay, reduces families' energy bills and makes a more prosperous California."

For Steyer, his goal for California delegation's impact on the Paris climate summit is deceptive in its simplicity: to get American politicians to back a meaningful dialogue on an issue that has been obscured by political pandering and oil industry interference for too long.

"What we really want is a robust and competitive conversation in front of the American people with both parties acknowledging the science and talking about what the best way is to achieve a clean-energy economy," Steyer said. "It's the biggest threat, it's the biggest opportunity and it's the biggest challenge — so let's go!"