Climate activists Tom Steyer announced his presidential bidTom Steyer hopes to raise the issue of climate change to greater prominence in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Photo credit: Josh Edelson/Getty Images
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By Karen Savage

Billionaire Tom Steyer, who has long pushed for climate change to be a major issue for presidential candidates, announced he is entering the race for the Democratic nomination. He promised to campaign around what he sees as the biggest obstacle to climate action: excessive corporate power, particularly the fossil fuel industry.

“You know you look at climate change—that is people who are saying we’d rather make money than save the world. That is an amazing statement, and it’s happening today and there are politicians supporting that,” Steyer said in a video released to announce his candidacy on Tuesday. In the video, he focuses on injustices caused by corporations, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that gave corporations the same rights as people.

Steyer is the latest to enter the crowded Democratic race, which currently has 25 contenders, including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Cory Booker, among others. While many of those candidates have issued plans to combat climate change, only Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has made it the focus of his campaign, and he is running far back in the polls.

But the issue is resonating with voters. With wildfires, increased precipitation events, severe flooding and rising sea levels, recent polls show voters are increasingly concerned about climate change. The Democratic National Committee has opposed staging a debate solely to discuss climate change debate and the issue received scant attention during the first two Democratic debates last month.

Steyer aims to change that by taking on the power behind the problem.

“Almost every single major intractable problem, at the back of it you see a big money interest for whom stopping progress, stopping justice, is really important to their bottom line,” Steyer said. “We’ve got to take the corporate control out of our politics.”

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, is the founder of NextGen America, a nonprofit group that combats climate change, promotes social justice and increases citizen participation by registering young voters and grassroots organizing. 

He has pledged to use “at least $100 million” of his own money to fund his presidential bid.

During the 2016 election cycle, Steyer spent $65 million in support of Democratic candidates and environmental causes and has recently advocated for the impeachment of President Trump. 

With a net worth of $1.6 billion, Steyer has admitted to profiting off fossil fuel investments in the past. He said he has since divested and also pledged to give away half his net worth to charitable causes.

“Tom Steyer has done a great deal of good through his leadership of, and contributions to groups fighting climate change,” said Michael Gerrard, a professor of environmental and climate change law at Columbia University and chair of the faculty at Columbia’s Earth Institute. 

But Gerrard questioned whether a presidential run is the best use of Steyer’s time and ample resources.

“Throwing himself into a large ring of Democratic candidates, several of whom are strong advocates of climate action, strikes me as a distraction and a waste of money that could accomplish more if used in other ways,” Gerrard said.

Others say regardless of the outcome, his candidacy will bring greater attention to the urgency of climate change.

“Tom Steyer’s entry into the presidential race is likely to lead to more discussion of climate change in the presidential election,” said climate scientist and Penn State professor Michael Mann.  “It will add to the chorus of voices arguing for the primacy of this issue in the 2020 presidential race—that can’t be a bad thing.”

Single-issue candidates are important components of presidential politics because they can draw the public’s attention to their issue, said Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle, who is now a visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University.

“He can use his wealth to run commercials and highlight the climate issue in ways that Jay Inslee couldn’t,” said Brulle, adding that could help the public to focus on climate change.

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said Steyer has been a climate leader for years.

“Democratic candidates’ bold proposals to tackle the crisis continue to illustrate the divide between a field of candidates listening to the people versus Trump, who’s endangering them,” Brune said via Twitter, adding that he’s glad to see another “climate champ” enter the race.

Steyer said he doesn’t see climate change as a stand-alone issue.

“Everything is connected—climate change impacts low-income citizens first, and has already displaced thousands and created climate refugees,” Steyer said on Twitter on Monday. 

“Climate justice is economic justice is migrant justice.”

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