On the surface, you would call this a good week for California billionaire, political donor and environmental activist Tom Steyer. He made national headlines with a plan to spend $25 million in seven states – including Colorado – mobilizing young voters and pushing climate change as a voting issue in this year’s election. He presented himself to the world, not for the first time, as a crusading climate billionaire offering hope to downtrodden millennials everywhere.
But the media attention was just a temporary distraction. In reality, Steyer had a terrible week, in which his narrow political ideology was mauled by the facts.
It started April 21, when his political action committee – NextGen Climate – endorsed the controversial crackdown on climate speech led by a group of liberal state attorneys general. NextGen activists rallied outside the office of New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster (D), demanding that he join the investigation.
Steyer, of course, is famous for using his fortune to attack people who don’t share his environmental views. In 2013, he even pledged to “destroy” political candidates who dared to question the climate alarmism of many environmental groups. That’s not the same thing as using government force to silence your political opponents, however, and until last week his role in the climate-speech crackdown wasn’t clear.
That all changed with the NextGen rally in New Hampshire. But Steyer could not have picked a worse time to publicly embrace the green thought police.
‘Extreme’ and ‘alarming’
A few days later, London’s Financial Times newspaper – which supports climate laws and carbon limits – came out strongly against the climate-speech investigation. The attorneys general, led by New York’s Eric Schneiderman (D), are taking “extreme” and “alarming” action based on “flimsy” legal grounds, the FT said. “Government should not act to suppress the views it does not agree with,” the newspaper cautioned. “Everyone ought to be able to take part in policy debates without worrying that their opponents will be able to use the law to go on fishing expeditions through their private communications.”
The condemnation from one of Europe’s leading newspapers followed a rising wave of opposition here at home, after it was revealed that environmental activists secretly collaborated with the attorneys general on the climate-speech crackdown. For Steyer, choosing this moment to come out as a supporter of Scheiderman and the other attorneys general was a major strategic blunder.
But things soon went from bad to worse for the San Francisco billionaire – and much closer to home.
Stanford: No credible case for divestment
On April 25, Stanford University – where Steyer sits on the board of trustees – rejected calls to divest from fossil fuels. Steyer is a huge supporter of fossil-fuel divestment, a campaign that involves many of the same environmental activists as the climate-speech crackdown.
By convincing universities to sell off stocks, bonds and other securities tied to fossil fuels, divestment activists hope to demonize energy companies and build political support for new climate laws and regulations. Steyer, with the help of student activists, was pushing his fellow trustees to divest. But the board’s statement this week showed just how badly he failed.
Even though the board believes in reducing fossil fuel consumption, and developing alternative energy sources, “at the present moment oil and gas remain integral components of the global economy, essential to the daily lives of billions of people in both developed and emerging economies,” the trustees said. “[G]iven how integral oil and gas are to the global economy, the trustees do not believe that a credible case can be made for divesting from the fossil fuel industry until there are competitive and readily available alternatives.”
In other words, go home Tom Steyer, you’re drunk.
This is a crushing defeat for the California billionaire and his allies in the fossil-fuel divestment campaign. The trustees of Stanford know Steyer better than just about anyone, and even they refuse to follow him. If he can’t sell divestment to Stanford – where he’s a trustee and even has a special energy policy center named after him – why should any other university take divestment seriously?
Young voters are Steyer’s ‘best hope’
Which brings us back to Steyer’s $25 million plan for millennials. Not surprisingly, it will be focused on roughly 200 college campuses across Colorado, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada and Illinois, according to NextGen. Assuming an even split across all seven states, that translates into roughly $3.5 million of spending on college campuses in Colorado between now and Election Day.
If history is any guide, that’s just a down payment. Steyer spent $8.5 million in Colorado in a failed effort to save former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D) in 2014, and in a speech hosted by Conservation Colorado last year, he warned there’s “even more at stake” in 2016. So far this election cycle, Steyer has invested almost $684,000 on research and polling in Colorado – 35 percent more than he spent during the two years heading into 2014’s midterms.
In a statement issued by NextGen, Steyer says young voters are his “best hope” because they will support the same politicians he supports, i.e. candidates who “embrace clean energy solutions.” The statement also says the organizers of this voter-turnout effort will be drawn from the ranks of the fossil-fuel divestment campaign, which is especially active at the University of Colorado.
The moral of the story: Politics
This confirms something that’s been obvious at CU for some time – the divestment campaign is a thinly veiled political operation designed to support Democrats. In early March, Fossil Free CU organized a paid speech from Canadian environmentalist and left-wing author Naomi Klein on the Boulder campus which quickly became a partisan political rally.
“Let’s make sure our Democrat regents are elected this fall,” a Fossil Free CU organizer told the crowd, in a clear reference to the CU Board of Regents. The CU board could flip from Republican to Democratic control this year, depending on who wins the race for an open statewide seat. But as the NextGen press release makes clear, divestment activists will also be used in other statewide races to “elect climate champions to the White House and Senate.”
This kind of voter turnout operation will help other Democrats down the ballot, of course, and even anti-fracking initiatives if they make the statewide ballot. In fact, groups tied to Steyer and NextGen – including Conservation Colorado – have already been campaigning for months to win control of the State Senate for Democrats and restore one-party rule in Colorado.
So, in just one week, we learned a lot about Tom Steyer that he didn’t want us to know. We learned his strain of environmental politics is so extreme that it makes other environmentalists nervous. We learned the people who know him best don’t trust him. And we learned that idealistic college students – working under the belief that fossil-fuel divestment is a “moral campaign at its core” – are just being used to get more Democrats elected to office and improve the billionaire’s standing with party insiders.
Yes, this is clearly the right man to lead the environmental left to victory.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.