Steyer calls for connecting climate to people and commerce as key to congressional action

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, February 28, 2014

SAN DIEGO — Getting American businesses to support action on climate change is the key to prompting congressional movement, financial investor turned billionaire activist Tom Steyer told a group here yesterday.
Businesses need to see how not acting on climate will affect their bottom line, Steyer said as he spoke at the Climate Leadership Conference. As well, he said, there are opportunities to make money by developing technological and other solutions to climate-related problems.”Everybody who I talk to in the political arena needs to hear from business,” Steyer said. “In this coalition, if we don’t have a strong business voice, we do not win. We absolutely do not win.””If people start to hear that businesses care and believe that this is something that we can accomplish, that completely changes this framework,” Steyer told a crowd of about 200 people, composed of those from government, schools, nonprofits and corporations.

Steyer, former hedge fund manager at Farallon Capital Management, the San Francisco firm he started, has emerged over the past 16 months as a force in climate politics. He said yesterday that “I get up every day and think about how to reduce the threat, how to be prepared for the impact.” He detailed his efforts to bring business along in his fight, including funding a study to quantify what inaction on climate change could cost the country.

Dubbed “Risky Business,” the analysis — the brainchild of Steyer top aide Kate Gordon — seeks to reframe the debate beyond a choice between jobs and climate action (Greenwire, Feb. 10). It’s headed by Steyer, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and George W. Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

At the same time, an organization Steyer co-founded, Advanced Energy Economy, is working to organize clean technology businesses by state and by energy category. And he’s endorsing the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, a nonprofit developing standards that publicly traded corporations can use in disclosing how climate issues could affect their finances.

“His message will resonate,” said Anne Kelly, director of public policy at Ceres, which organizes investors, companies and public interest groups to accelerate the adoption of sustainable business practices.

“There are many businesses who would otherwise not get involved,” Kelly said after hearing Steyer’s talk. “Hearing someone who understands the investment world will have a major difference. People listen to billionaires. I think he garners respect.”

Study will present risk by industry

Steyer gave new details on “Risky Business,” including that the analysis will measure risk across specific areas and across specific industries.

“We’re going to go by region and we’re going to go by industry, because that’s what affects people,” Steyer said.

It will use a kind of insurance model, he said, looking at the outlying possibilities such as “here are some terrible things that might happen, not necessarily, but possibly in Miami.” It also will present the most probable outcomes, like “here are the things you can also expect.”

It’s necessary because people need to connect climate costs to their lives, Steyer said. In Miami, for example, $156 billion worth of real estate sits less than 3 feet above the ocean, which is rising. In California, there are ski resorts without snow, making it hard to sell season passes, he said.

“Really, what we’re trying to do is bring it home to people very specifically and locally, and quantify the impacts,” Steyer said.

He cautioned those in the audience to understand businesses’ priorities.

“Accept other people’s bottom lines,” he said. “Businesses are in the business of making money. You’ve got to relate it to their goals, not try and change them to your goals.”

People in Congress make decisions influenced by their wanting to get re-elected, he said.

“You don’t change their motivations; you understand their motivations,” he said.

During a question-and-answer session, one person asked how to expedite action, because delays could mean failing to avert catastrophic climate change. Steyer agreed it was a quandary.

“We have a scientific timetable, which we don’t control and which suggests we need urgent action,” he said, “and we have a political system in Washington, D.C., which is set up specifically to prevent hasty and dangerous action.”

He suggested “going directly to Americans.” He said he’d rather be in Memphis, Tenn., and Austin, Texas, because, “Once we have those people, we have Washington, D.C. We can’t skip those steps.”

‘What’s it going to cost to win?’

Steyer’s speech came as he collides with opponents about his efforts to stop the Keystone XL oil pipeline. He told The New York Times last week that he’d be willing to spend $100 million to help elect climate-friendly candidates this fall. He has previously funded ads in races won by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

Matt Dempsey, spokesman for the industry-backed pro-pipeline group Oil Sands Fact Check, said last week that “despite spending millions, Tom Steyer is running into a tidal wave of Democratic support for Keystone XL” (Greenwire, Feb. 18).

In an interview after the speech, Steyer said the $100 million was a rough figure and that campaign budgets often expand from early estimates.

Asked how much he was willing to spend, Steyer replied, “What’s it going to cost to win?”

He said last week that he’s interested in the Iowa Senate race. Asked yesterday if he’ll spend money in others, he said “probably,” but declined to say which ones.

Steyer’s also been active in California, though recently it’s been more on the lobbying front. He called for a new tax on all oil extracted in California, saying the lack of one is a billion-dollar corporate tax giveaway. He said yesterday that he’s been talking to lawmakers in support of S.B. 1017, legislation that would impose a severance tax.

He opposes hydraulic fracturing in California’s Monterey Shale formation but said he hasn’t decided whether to spend money to help block it.