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In what has become a two-man race, Mr Steyer stopped short of endorsing former vice president Joe Biden or Vermont senator Bernie Sanders but said there was little chance it wouldn’t be the former VP, during an interview last week.
He told The Independent: “I will support the Democratic candidate. I think it’s becoming clear that candidate is overwhelmingly likely to be Joe Biden.”
He added: “I’ve always felt it’s up to the voters to make that decision. I started one of the biggest grassroots organisations in the US, NextGen America, that specifically organises young people and people of colour. My goal has been to push on the issues.
“We’re all going to have to get behind the candidate, make that candidate as strong as possible and, in this case, his message, as powerful as possible.”
Mr Steyer, 62, spent more than $300m on his presidential bid which ended last month after he came third in the South Carolina primary.
The former hedge-fund manager, who is worth an estimated $1.6bn, gained traction with Democrats by putting climate front and centre.
He wasn’t the only one. During the last debate, Mr Sanders likened climate change to the coronavirus pandemic as “a warlike situation” on which “we have to act dramatically”, adding that Mr Biden’s plan is “nowhere near enough”.
Following sweeping primary wins in the Florida and Illinois primaries, Mr Biden made a direct appeal his opponent’s supporters, calling climate change “the existential threat of our time”.
“I hear you. I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do,” he said.
Mr Steyer said he has been in touch with both candidates and their campaigns and hoped for more clarity on Mr Biden’s climate plan soon.
“I think that [Biden’s] plan isn’t fully formed. I’m sure it will come into much sharper focus over the coming months, hopefully the coming weeks, and that it will get a lot more specific.”
When asked if the former VP’s climate plan was aggressive enough, he said: “I think it has to get fleshed out before we can really make that decision.
“I’m going to be pushing to have it be as aggressive as possible.”
Both Mr Biden and Mr Sanders have centred their environmental policies around the Green New Deal. They both say they would immediately re-enter global climate talks, after Mr Trump pulled out, and have pledged help for fossil fuel workers to shift to a clean energy economy.
But there are marked differences: Mr Sanders has a goal of 2030 for ending fossil fuel use in power and transport, moving the rest of the economy to clean energy by 2050. His environmental plan indicates a $16.3tn investment over the next decade.
Mr Biden has a $1.7tn plan for the next decade and plans for the US to have net-zero emissions by 2050, meaning still using fossil fuels but off-set with measures such as carbon capture. His mixed signals on fracking have been a red flag for some voters.
At the most recent debate, he said: “No more – no new fracking.”
His campaign later said that the VP misspoke. His plan remains that he would issue no new fracking permits for federal lands or waters but allow existing fracking operations to go on. (Mr Sanders says he will ban fracking nationwide but that it couldn’t happen “overnight”, the Washington Post reported).
Their campaigns did not respond to requests for comment by The Independent.
Mr Steyer made his money in private equity and established Farallon Capital after moving to San Francisco in the Eighties where he still lives with his wife, Kat Taylor, and four children. The family live in the Sea Cliff neighbourhood of the city, beloved by the ultra-rich for its sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
His wealth was partly built on investing in fossil fuels but he cashed out in 2012 to focus on politics and the environment, setting up NextGen America in 2013.
Other snippets of his green credentials include that Steyer flies commercial and owns a 2000-acre ranch near San Francisco raising sustainable chickens. His progressive stances have also made him a target. In 2018, during a wave of mail bombs sent to Democrats and liberals by fervent Trump support Cesar Sayoc, a suspicious package addressed to Mr Steyer was found at a postal depot.
At January’s primary debate, Mr Steyer said that he had long since changed his stance on fossil fuels and divested from the industry. (Although he conceded, there may be some “dregs” left and any profits he would give away to charity).
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Mr Steyer told The Independent: “The whole idea that natural gas is a bridge fuel that we should be building around is an idea from the past.”
However, he pointed out that natural gas is currently “a cornerstone” for energy generation in the US.
“The president has to deal with this on a real-time basis but also there’s a transition that’s inevitable, so how fast are we managing that transition to a sustainable world?
“We’re going to be pushing to make that transition as aggressive and fast as possible.”
Mr Biden has been accused by environmental organisation 350 Action of “dragging his feet” on climate. Scientists warn we have around a decade to get climate change under control.
Mr Steyer said 2030, 2040 and 2050 are relevant for different goals. “The question is when are you going to start and how aggressively?
“How much can the president control through executive action [and what do] you need Congress to get behind?
“It’s not what you’re promising to do 30 years out, long after you’re out of office but what is deliverable on day one. Those are things that are absolutely critical.”
Mr Steyer sees a number of executive actions that could be taken around “specific pillars” to prioritise issues.
“What can be done by executive action in terms of building codes, miles-per-gallon rules, goals to move to clean energy generation and how we’re going to use leasing on public land, what we’re going to do about offshore drilling.”
However he is a realist about what a potential Democratic president would face on arrival in the White House.
“Who’s controlling the Senate, the House of Representatives and what’s possible to get done through the legislative branch,” he pointed out.
The US has to be outward looking on the climate crisis as a “global problem”, he said.
“Where does [climate] stand in the order of all the issues facing an incoming president and particularly an incoming president who’s following Donald Trump, who could be best described as a complete disaster when it comes to climate policy.
“There’s so much makeup to be done on policy and rebuilding the infrastructure of environmental protection. Not just the Environmental Protection Agency but across the government.
“How are you going to structure the government’s response to climate and within your administration. There’s a lot to be done.”
Climate is the issue that underpins all others and disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of colour, he said.
“This is an overwhelming issue that cuts across so many issues in the US.
“You can’t separate social, racial and environmental justice. You can’t deal with climate without dealing with all of those combined questions and it becomes one big reorientation of our country around the idea of justice and that we’re a society where we have to take care of each other and work together to solve our common problems.”
He added: “The Trump administration is the exact opposite. I view them as a complete disaster in the form of social justice, racial justice and climate justice.”
Mr Steyer says that winning voter support is in part how the candidate conveys that message.
“Whether you describe yourself as a climate voter or not for a lot of young people, this is a number one issue.
“For a lot of black and brown people in our country, air and water pollution are intimately connected with climate and are critical issues.”
He added: “I’ve been a grassroots organiser for well over a decade and I know the question in November 2020 is not going to be how people vote but whether people vote.
“So convincing people that there’s a real emotional understanding and prioritisation of things that are impacting people so deeply is going to be really important for the Biden administration, for Joe Biden personally to do.”
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