Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer dishes on Biden's environmental efforts, Trump's impeachment, and whether he wants a job in the new administration

  • Billionaire Tom Steyer chatted with Insider about the Biden agenda, Trump, and climate change.
  • Steyer ran a brief, but costly run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
  • Steyer led the long-running campaign to impeach former President Donald Trump.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

In some other dimension, climate activist Tom Styer is president of the United States. There, he uses his billions of dollars to outpoint a packed Democratic field, bounce Donald Trump from the presidency, then paint the White House green with a wildly ambitious environmental agenda.

Back on our Earth, Steyer — who spent more than $344 million of his own money on a short-lived 2020 presidential bid — is neither president nor in President Joe Biden’s administration. 

But Steyer continues to lead his own environmentally-focused, and cash-flush political movement: the NextGen America super PAC, NextGen Policy lobbying group, and Tom Steyer PAC political action committee. He also remains optimistic about the government’s prospects for prioritizing climate change policy and creating incentives for green business innovation.

In an exclusive interview this week with Insider, the billionaire philanthropist and businessman ranked the Biden administration’s early environmental policy performance. He pondered whether members of Congress should be allowed to own individual stock. He dished on his yearslong “Need to Impeach” effort targeting former President Donald Trump. And he talked about whether he’d like a government job — say, an ambassadorship or cabinet post.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Insider: Is climate change denialism dead — functionally dead? 

Tom Steyer: I know that 20 percent of America believes the world is flat. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that. I mean, there’s stuff that people really believe that it’s not true, but it’s not taken seriously by the vast bulk of Americans. That’s really where we are in terms of clean energy and climate. It’s like, ‘Stop! I don’t want to talk about whether the world is flat!’ 

But from a public policy perspective, do you believe climate denialism is nearing the same level as flat earthism? 

Yes, I do. Thank God. 

Given everything happening with the COVID-19 pandemic, do you worry that the Biden administration is going to back- or middle-burner environmental issues in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t be? 

I don’t think that’s true. You can see that this administration has hit the ground running when it comes to clean energy and climate response, not just in terms of who they appointed, but the executive actions they’ve already taken. And the emphasis that President Biden has put on this is exactly consistent with the campaign him and Kamala Harris ran. And so, as far as I’m concerned, they have to be able to do more than one thing at a time. They have to be able to do COVID response and climate response and racial justice response. And I believe that specifically when it comes to climate, they’re doing a first-class job. 

Biden, on his first day in office, signed a number of executive orders. The Paris Climate Accord went back into play after not being so many months. What Biden actions, specifically, have stood out for you? And what yet needs to be done?

The thing that remains to be done, that’s huge, is the Build Back Better plan. It’d create millions of good-paying union jobs all over the country. But, of course, the president can’t write a check for $2 trillion by himself. That’s something that’s going to require congressional legislation. It’s something that is a big part of what he and Kamala ran on that remains to be done. But if you look across the number of things that he’s done in terms of pushing for 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, that’s huge. Changed in terms of using the purchasing power of the government of undoing the mistakes and wanton disregard of our climate crisis by the Trump administration — also huge. Across the board, he’s lived up to what he said he was going to do, including Paris.

He’s also having a huge international conference on Earth Day. And this is all leading up to American participation in [the United Nations Climate Change Conference] this November in Glasgow. It’s not just what you’ve seen in terms of executive actions. It’s the things that are happening behind the scenes consistent with all of the promises made in the campaign. It’s involving every part of government, including the secretary of housing, the secretary of transportation, and the secretary of state. It’s across-the-board in how they’re viewing their jobs with a climate lens. 

Would you like to see the full government fleet move to hybrid and electric vehicles? And what other concrete actions can the Biden administration take — inside the federal government — to facilitate the use of clean energy? 

You can put it in a bigger context. If you look at the five different areas that people traditionally break out in the move to clean energy, its electricity generation, transportation, building, manufacturing, and agriculture. The government buys a lot of transportation, and it can be a leader in terms of driving down the cost of that and driving up the usage of, as you point out, EVs. The government has a huge number of buildings that they could bring up in terms of ways that will be cheaper using clean energy. The government is highly involved in how we do electricity generation. 

But I think the bigger point here is: this is ultimately going to be something the private sector does. Ultimately, we need American companies to succeed. The government can give us a framework and start the momentum. But we need to win. The US government can buy EVs from American companies. Ultimately, consumers around the world have to buy the best ones, and we have to make the best ones. The government can give a good head start in being a customer. This is something we’ve traditionally done. We can do it. We’ve innovated, engineered, we’ve researched, we’ve led the world, but we’re behind here. And there’s no question, largely because of the Trump administration. We’re playing from behind. The private sector needs to lead the way. 

What can the federal government do to incentivize, for example, the speed by which General Motors and Ford use to change most of their fleet from internal combustion vehicles to electric vehicles — something they say they’ll do?

I believe we saw a huge sea change in General Motors, which was suing California in December of 2020 stop the introduction of new CAFE standards, new miles-per-gallon standards, which then led to ‘We’re going to be one hundred percent, EVs or zero-emission vehicles by 2035.’

That was a response to the fact that California said that we’re going to only permit the purchase of EVs by 2035. 

The fact that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran on that idea, this world is inevitably changing. They’re setting rules and giving people time to investigate that, to create products against that and to be a great company and create good paying jobs. We can’t afford not to win in this. American companies have to compete globally, have to succeed globally if we’re going to prosper. 

I think we’re going to create millions of good paying jobs. The private sector is going to have to succeed here in a world that’s going to be cleaned. And the sooner we accept it and get down to it, the better we’re going to be. And this huge change in the private sector that I’m seeing — it’s completely different then what I was seeing 2, 4 or 8 years ago.

Is there anything that the federal government should or can do — tax credits or other incentives — to make that process go more quickly than it otherwise would? 

Absolutely. When you think about some of these new technologies, there is inevitability — and I do mean inevitably — a cost curve that new technologies follow. It’s a question of cost and a question of effectiveness. 

This is not a terrible analogy: the cell phone. I can remember the cell phone in the mid-80s; they were like a big brick. Remember they had the antenna that stuck out at the end? And now, they probably have a hundred or a thousand times the capabilities and they’re sleek and can fit in your hip pocket. And they’re much cheaper. I can remember spending $2,000 on a cell phone. So, what can the government do? Help. That’s how the world got solar — giving the companies subsidies that they could run down the cost. That’s how we got electric vehicles, by giving consumers subsidies so they can buy them so that we can get the companies to bring down their costs. 

The tech is good. The tech is going to be better. We have to do this, and we have to win this, and we have to create this new world from the private sector, hand in glove with the government. 

We recently reported that Sen. Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, invested money in American Electric Power Company, which is primarily still fueled by coal and other fossil fuels. Should members of Congress be able to personally trade this, or other individual stocks and equities?

(Laughs). I have spent my life in regulated industries. I have always been incredibly subject to extreme oversight on a daily basis by government regulators. I don’t know the rules of Congress for how they deal with conflicts. I know that it’s something that I’ve spent my entire professional career being extremely clear about and extremely careful about.

But in principle — doesn’t matter what company — should members of Congress be allowed to buy and sell and trade individual stocks? Or should they have to stick to mutual funds or some investment where they wouldn’t be buying a power company, or buying Tesla, or whatever?

I understand the implication, but I don’t think there is an easy answer. When I left the private sector to spend my time on advocacy, particularly about clean energy, I completely separated. I will not make any clean energy investments except ones that go into a foundation. So, if they make a million dollars, that million dollars can only be given away or spent on good causes. It cannot go to me to pay for dinner or rent or travel. So, you know, I’ve spent a lot of time on this, but you have to do the detailed work to do more than give you an off-the-cuff answer without knowing all the facts.

Would you like to be a member of the Biden administration yourself in any form or fashion? Say, an ambassadorship or being a part in the Biden administration in Washington, DC? Have you had any conversations of that sort?

I have been spending the last few months working on some combination of the issues that I care most about, which include climate and economic and racial justice and [fostering] the broadest possible and fairest possible democracy. And in that, I have been partnering, and intend to partner with, the administration and work with them. My goal in this is to be impactful as possible. I think there’s going to be some combination of investment in policy and politics that’s going to inform this. I’m going to be involved. I have been very, very interested in a suite of issues for the last decade. And I’m still working on those issues and intend to work with the administration.

Just to be clear: Have you had any conversations about joining the Biden administration with members of the administration? 

I have had conversations about how to work with them. Whatever I do, I will be doing it in conjunction and in partnership with them. I’m not sure exactly the role that I will take, honestly. I had worked hard until November to make sure that the Biden/Harris ticket won, that Democrats retook the Senate, that we had as big a win as possible. I had not been talking, really, for a couple of years, at least, with my friends in the private sector and investment world. And in the last few months, I am really reacquainting myself with those people. And I believe now that the private sector is going to actually have to drive a lot of the change, the majority of the change in terms of the response to the climate crisis. So, I have been spending a lot of time with my friends who are starting companies, who are running companies and who are investing in companies, to understand how that is working.

On impeachment: How much credit do you give yourself for not just the one, but the two impeachments of President Trump? And are you satisfied with the result of the second impeachment trial, knowing full well that it was going to be a very difficult road for Democrats to get a needed two-thirds majority to convict? 

It wasn’t just me. There were between eight and nine million Americans who signed that “need to impeach” petition. I know that their concern, and my concern, was that we had a criminal fascist who was threatening the people of the United States and the democracy of the United States consistently for the entire time. 

Do I believe that was a righteous fight? One hundred percent. Was I surprised that he descended to the level of getting his followers to storm the Capitol and undo an election through violence? Am I surprised? No. That’s precisely why I was part of Need to Impeach and why I started Need to Impeach. I could see that’s exactly who he was. And it was entirely consistent with how he was behaving and what he had done. 

Am I satisfied that he was impeached twice, but he never got convicted? I’d have to say no.

My goal in all of it was always for the American people to be able to see things like the videos of inciting that riot, listen to the call in the state of Georgia when [Trump] was asking for votes to be found. My goal is for Americans to understand today and in the future what a criminal fascist looks like when he achieves the presidency — and to make sure that it’s understood that it’s as dangerous as, in fact, it turned out to be. It was physical violence that you could literally put on your TV screens that we all watched. And yet he was not convicted. I think that was a miscarriage of justice. 

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