Energy Advocate and Philanthropist Thomas Steyer Stresses Political Activism at Athenaeum Lunch on Earth Day

You could say that the timing of Thomas Steyer’s presentation (Acting Politically to Avert Climate Disaster and Preserve American Prosperity) at the Athenaeum last Tuesday was momentous.

It was Earth Day; the 44th annual Earth Day to be exact and Mr. Steyer (the founder, and before he left the private sector, Senior Managing Member of Farallon Capital Management) likes exactitude in figures and facts.

“The first Earth Day was in 1970 and most of the people here at this lunch were not yet born,” Mr. Steyer said. “Twenty million people participated in the U.S. in what was largely a spontaneous local ‘thoughtfest’ about what should be done to honor and preserve the Earth. Amazingly, coming out of that first Earth Day, we got the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency.”

According to Mr. Steyer, the first Earth Day created a groundswell of activism that has grown globally over the decades. “If you don’t think in the U.S. that people care about this and through their caring have a huge impact, you’d be wrong,” he said. “Forty-four years later, we’re still living with the result. Ecology is the most important thing that will happen in the U.S. this year in terms of energy and the environment.”

Mr. Steyer has pledged his fortune and his time in an effort to preserve prosperity at home via initiatives that make sense both economically and environmentally. He is president of NextGen Climate, a political action organization that works to avert climate disaster. He also is actively engaged in climate politics and promotes economic development and environmental protection in California.

In 2010, Mr. Steyer teamed with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz to defeat California’s Proposition 23, an effort by out-of-state oil companies to dismantle California’s groundbreaking clean energy law, AB 32.

In addition, Mr. Steyer and his wife, Kat Taylor, joined Warren Buffett, Bill and Melinda Gates and other high-wealth Americans in the “Giving Pledge,” a promise to donate the majority of their wealth to charitable and nonprofit activities during their lifetimes. Together, the Steyers created and funded the Oakland-based One PacificCoast Bank and Foundation, which provides loans and banking services to underserved small businesses, communities and individuals in California and along the west coast.

In his presentation, Mr. Steyer said that although two-thirds of American’s agree that pursuing environmentally responsible sources of energy is laudable and worthwhile, they care more about jobs and education than they do about energy and climate.

“Many believe that the way that policy happens in the U.S.,” he said, “is that politicians read polls and do what is popular. That is not at all true. For example, after polling, 92 percent of Americans favored background checks on guns. National legislation didn’t pass and was never close to passing. The only thing that really matters in politics is votes, not polls. A poll is an opinion and the only thing that counts is when that opinion is strong enough to change your vote.”

According to Mr. Steyer, the problem of clean energy alternatives and climate is all about politics, very complicated and difficult politics.

“It’s not necessarily the same dynamic on state levels,” he said. “For example, California has the most progressive energy laws of any government in the entire world. And there are many states in the U.S. that are making progress. The place where we see political failure on this topic (as in gun control) is in the U.S. Congress where every issue suffers a partisan divide.”

Although Mr. Steyer believes that on the whole, the Obama Administration is making good strides on the clean energy issue, he said three things need to happen in the private sector to really get energy to the right place in the U.S; they are promulgating policy, pathfinding clean technologies and developing methods of finance.

Mr. Steyer added that another important element is basic accounting. “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it or even fathom it,” he said. “You have to be able to put a number to it or no one will pay attention.”

Furthermore, Mr. Steyer fervently believes (as he surveyed the students in the room) that it is the younger generation – people under age 30 – that will lead in these areas.

“Every generation has an issue that defines them; World War II, Civil Rights, Vietnam,” he said. “I believe the issue of energy and climate will define your generation. We can’t solve this by ourselves in this country but the world can’t do it without us. There is no country in the world that has our moral leadership, money, technology and global reach.

“As my friend George Schulz likes to say: ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport,’” Steyer continued. “There is a huge implied inertia in America, and until Americans decide that something has to change, there won’t be change.”

Thomas McHenry, J.D., visiting associate professor in the government department at CMC (and a college friend of Mr. Steyer), introduced him.
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