Sunday, May 25, 2014

Environment's Knight in Shining Armor Tom Steyer Takes On Climate Change Deniers

As a race we’re slow to face the consequence of our actions, especially our polluting ones, but we’ve also been blind to how much big money was thrown at keeping us stuck in the dinosaur age where environmentalists were laughed at and called whack-jobs and tree-huggers.

Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert J. Brulle, PhD, conducted a study on the climate change countermovement and found that between 2003 and 2010, 91 climate change denial organizations spent over $7 billion on a climate change countermovement. This movement is “a well-funded and organized effort to undermine public faith in climate science and block action by the U.S. government to regulate emissions. [It includes] conservative think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and conservative foundations, with strong links to sympathetic media outlets and conservative politicians.”  These 91 organizations currently have an annual income of almost $900 million at their disposal, 75% of which comes from untraceable funding. 

But at last environmental consciousness is main stream and big money is backing it. Environmentalist knight in shining armor Tom Steyer, a retired financier currently worth about $1.5 billion, recently pledged to spend $100 million ($50 million of his own and $50 million which he plans to raise) targeting climate change denier politicians and supporting politicians who actively work towards safeguarding the environment. 

It’s easy, when Wall Street is more like the Wild West than ever before, when crooks get away with destroying economies, and individuals have fortunes that are indecent in a world where so many starve, to assume that all billionaires who have earned their fortunes in the financial world are sons of bitches. Whether Steyer is one of that commendable species or not is hard to say since up until a year ago he stayed under the radar. But in 2010 he (and his wife Katheryn A. Taylor) signed the Giving Pledge to donate the bulk of their wealth to charity which says a whole lot of something good about them both. He’s also an ardent environmentalist and committed to devoting his energy and a lot of his money to the cause, which also says a lot about him. 

These days that means engaging in political campaigning and to that end Steyer founded NextGen Climate in 2013 which acts “politically to avert climate disaster and preserve American prosperity… we are committed to supporting candidates, elected officials and policymakers across the country that will take bold action on climate change—and to exposing those who deny reality and cater to special interests.” 

NextGen Climate is set to be one of the largest outside groups in the US, rivalling in clout the Koch brothers’ conservative political network. But not every liberal body and mind is happy about what Steyer is doing. 

The Guardian ran an article by Andy Koll more or less condemning all super-wealthy individuals who use their fortunes to influence politics regardless of whether they’re conservative or liberal, calling the latter hypocrites. They lament the Citizens United ruling that allows individuals to spend as much as they want in political campaigns but they also say that until things change they’ll play the game. Koll said these liberals are inflicting as much real damage on democracy as conservatives. 

But the reality is that the Koch brothers et al pour millions into influencing politics so environmental laws restricting them won’t be passed. If nobody steps in to counteract the influence that those conservatives’ money buys, who will stop them? 

The voters who have been conned into believing that Democrats just want to take their jobs in the fossil fuel industry away and that burning fossil fuels doesn’t really impact on the environment at all? The conservative Judges and Justices who rule in favor of conservative corporate interest regardless of how their rulings impact on the whole of humanity, not just America? I don’t think so. 

For me the problem isn’t that liberals get involved and competitive in the spending. I think Liberals with a fortune that they’re willing to spend are right to say that until things change they need to play the game as well, otherwise we all lose.

What worries me is that some of these big spenders only want to see their issue resolved and can have tunnel vision. This year Steyer hosted a gathering of liberal donors and environmental philanthropists at his ranch in California as part of his campaign to raise that other $50 million. The New York Times quoted one of the attendees, David Topper, a New York private equity investor as saying “You need to be agnostic as to party. If I find someone who has the right position on climate change, do I care if he owns six guns? Not at all.” So America could possibly end up with a cleaner environment, but everybody could be armed with as many assault weapons as they want.

Women wouldn’t have equal pay, minimum wage would never be raised, gays, lesbians and anybody not white wouldn’t have any rights, deep-rooted racism wouldn’t get addressed, universal health coverage would be done away with and it would be back to the insurance companies scamming everybody…

Even Tom Steyer’s core focus isn’t along party lines, it’s about politicians who advocate working towards climate change. As it happens, so far those politicians are for the most part Democrats, so for now Steyer’s political organization will help prevent the Senate going to the GOP, which will help the threat to America’s democracy on all fronts, not just on that of climate change. But if Republicans get smart and change their tune just about climate change but not about anything else, they could have Steyer’s money as well as the Kochs’. That would truly be the end of democracy in America. And we’d have to kiss goodbye the world as we know it even faster than we’re having to do now.

People with a lot of money might have a lot of money-making sense and they may be passionate about the right things and generous with their money and time, but they don't always have enough sense to see the bigger picture. In the light of the recent California massacre I bet David Topper is wishing he'd kept his mouth shut. Tom Steyer looks far too smart to be blinded by his own agenda - fantastically noble as it is - to how interconnected everything is. He doesn't look like somebody who would promote the environment at the cost of, for example, gun safety, equality and a healthy middle class.

Still I'd feel safer if I knew he was committed to the health of democracy first and climate change second because with Obama as President the second will ensue from the first, but the other way round isn't guaranteed with a Congress in the hands of Republicans.