A Climate Activist’s Impeachment Campaign Heats Up

Tom Steyer is hot about Democrats’ lack of initiative on climate change and impeachment.

Tom Steyer, wearing a shirt that says, "We are all Dreamers," stands at a podium.
Tom Steyer speaks onstage during the People’s State of the Union on Jan. 29 in New York City. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Billionaire megadonor Tom Steyer, founder of the climate advocacy group NextGen, has, for some time, been one of the most prominent climate activists in the Democratic Party. He’s recently turned his attention to an expansive effort to build support for removing Trump from office. He’s spent millions on an impeachment ad campaign and will begin a national town hall tour on the subject Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio.

Last week, I scheduled an interview with Steyer to talk about the state of climate politics. When we spoke, Steyer talked about how to bring climate change back to the fore of the Democratic Party’s agenda, but it was clear that he had impeachment and the party’s wider woes on his mind. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Osita Nwanevu: We’ve seen a lot of potential Democratic 2020 candidates staking out ambitious positions on a number of issues over the past year—there’s been a real rush toward single payer, for instance. But climate policy hasn’t been a major part of the conversation within the party and on the left since the election, even as the need to address climate change obviously grows more urgent each passing year. Why do you think that is?

Tom Steyer: You know it’s hard for me to speculate about what they’re thinking about. To me, there’s no way to get away from the centrality of clean air and clean water and the need to rebuild a sustainable America. When you think about the future of this country, it is hard for me to see how we talk to people without talking about the right people have to breathe clean air and drink clean water. That seems to me to be a basic right that’s being abridged. And it’s a real health issue. And I think in terms of thinking about both the current economic position of the country and of working people and the future economic position of the country and of working people, it’s impossible not to see that we need to rebuild the United States of America and we need to do it in a sustainable way. Whether you’re talking about creating good paying jobs or when you’re talking about the health of American citizens, you know you are in effect talking about climate. You’re just not talking about it directly.

You seem convinced, and I think most people are convinced, that the most politically productive way to talk about climate policy is to frame it, to a large extent, as economic stimulus—talking less about climate change as an existential threat to humanity and more about it as a pocketbook issue.

I’m agreeing partially, but not completely. Let me give you where I see it differently. What I’m agreeing with is that any time you are talking to American citizens, they need to hear something. Human beings need to hear something that has to do with their life. Not with some theory of their life but actually with their life. And so when you talk about jobs in the United States, I mean I think that “2,500 jobs in northwestern Pittsburgh at $26 an hour” beats “2 million net jobs in the United States of America for unknown people at an unknown wage.” So, if you’re going to talk about it, you have to talk very specifically about what the jobs are, what they pay, and where they’re going to be located. So that’s one thing that I think we’ve done a very poor job on. People pushing for clean energy have done a very poor job on.

Secondly, I would not underestimate the importance to Americans of their health. I think there’s been this sense that clean air and clean water and luxuries—like we might get the sniffles. No! We’re talking about having a healthy life in California. We have 3.3 million people with asthma. That’s not the sniffles. That changes your life. That means you can’t go to school—that affects you. You know I’ve got a 40-year-old friend, a co-worker from Southern California from Orange County who almost died from asthma and still cannot lead the life he would live if he didn’t have asthma. And if you look at the effect of unsafe water on people—you know, there are a lot of Flints. It’s just that got an extreme amount of publicity. And the other thing that’s true about this is that dirty air and dirty water are located in poor communities and communities of color. So when we think about health care, we are basically putting our health risks as a society onto the backs of specific people in society and it’s completely unjust. So when we think about rebuilding America cleanly we have to be talking about whether there are jobs for somebody you know and what they pay. And are they organized. And we have to be talking about people’s right to clean air and clean water. And the fact that there is an extremely unjust and intolerable situation in the United States. And about who’s bearing the costs.

As far as pollution is concerned, one of the interesting and frequently overlooked facts in the climate debate is that people support regulating and curbing CO2 emissions pretty broadly and strongly even in places where belief in anthropogenic climate change is low. Do you think that can be taken advantage of in selling climate solutions? Saying to voters, look even if you don’t think emissions should be curbed to solve climate change, we can agree that air pollution is bad.

Yes, I think that’s true, but I would say this too. I think you can successfully go after people who deny climate change, which is a different point from arguing climate. So, for instance, I would accuse climate deniers of being both incompetent and corrupt both of which would be true. I don’t even want to talk about climate. I would just say this: that they are being paid money, by special interests looking after their own pocketbooks, not to take care of your kids and your safety and health. And that is an amazing fact that they would sell you out for campaign dollars. But that’s exactly what’s going on. And that is true. The Republicans have been doing that for over a decade. And it is shocking that the Democrats don’t call them out for being absolutely corrupt. All these Republican electeds went to college. I’ll bet you 99 percent of them went to college and completed it. They are not fools. They’re not wondering whether this is true. They’re lying for money, and they’re putting us all at risk. That’s the truth. When are we going to start telling the truth? That they’re just corrupt liars? That’s just a fact. And the Democrats don’t want to say it because it’s so rude. Really? Is it rude to say that they’re corrupt liars, or is it rude to be a corrupt liar? I say it’s rude to be a corrupt liar.

So I’ve wondered about this on issues beyond climate. Why do you think the Democratic Party has been reluctant to frame Republicans as antagonists in that way? They will criticize Republicans on climate change, obviously, but I don’t think most would frame them as harshly as you just have.

I have wondered about that a lot too. I want to give you one example and then I’ll give you my speculation about what is missing. I mean I was talking to a super senior Democrat today who’s an old friend. And you know, the guy just hates impeachment. I mean he was talking to me and said, “You know, I just don’t want to talk about impeachment because I disagree with you.” And I was like, “OK, do you think the guy is a traitor? That he’s refusing to protect the American people from electronic attacks by a hostile foreign power?” And he’s like, “Oh, yeah that’s true.” I said, “Do you think he’s lawless?” “Absolutely lawless.” “So you think he’s a traitor who is not obeying the laws of the United States. And he’s not putting the American people first. He’s the president. But you’re not for impeachment?” “No.” I’m like, “Why not?” He’s like, “Well, tactical reasons.” And I’m like, “This isn’t a tactical question. This is a moral question. This is a question of right and wrong. And you’re telling me you won’t stand up for right and wrong because it’s not tactically smart, in your opinion.” He says, “Yes.” I don’t want to extrapolate that conversation to everybody else. But what I’m seeing is a lack of mojo. They’re lying for money. It’s not nice. I wish it weren’t true. But that’s actually what’s happening. It’s very simple. And so, if you’re not willing to say that, I have no idea what is scaring you. But for some reason, you’re being scared away from telling an obvious truth. That is absolutely hampering us. And until we start telling the obvious truth—that this is a lawless president controlled by a hostile foreign power—how are we supposed to deal with it? We have to have the guts and the confidence to step up and tell the truth because the American people need the truth.

One counterargument that might get made—again thinking about climate—is that, given political polarization, overly partisan framing might turn off people who might be otherwise receptive to your message.

Well, let me put it a little differently. Do I feel terrible that we’re in such a partisan time in the United States of America? I think we all regret that. But do I honestly think that that is the result of equal behavior on both sides? Not for one single second. Not for a single second. If you’re talking about climate, you have one side that is trying to use scientific evidence to figure out the best economic health and safety pattern for the United States of America and you have another side that is lying their ass off for money and for the support of their biggest donors. That is not equivalent. That’s not even close to equivalent. So when people say, “Oh, you’re being too partisan,” telling the truth is too partisan. Accepting science is too partisan. Baloney! That’s baloney. What is going on is that the Republican Party has sold out the truth on climate to their biggest fossil fuel donors, and they want to be treated politely and go to a cocktail party and be treated as if they were truth tellers. No, they are not! They are lying their ass off. And they know it!

So, who—

I’m sorry, I’m just hot about this.

I can tell.

It’s infuriating! It’s not equivalent. That is a false equivalence, and we see it in so many of these issues. There is a false equivalence here.

Again, I don’t think there are many people in the Democratic Party who speak as angrily about all this as you are now. Do you think that there’s an opening, come 2020 perhaps, for someone who can take the fight to the Republicans on climate and tell people “the truth” as you see it?

I think there’s something big going on honestly that I think for some reason people don’t want to acknowledge. People want to think the status quo is where we’re going to stay. And I don’t believe that. I thought two people won the presidential race in 2016: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Bernie is still—I mean people still flock to hear him talk. He’s still got tons of followers on Facebook and everything, blah blah blah. He’s not a Democrat. He’s a Democratic Socialist. Donald Trump won the election and he knocked out—whatever it was—16 other Republican contenders including all the guys who were considered the real deal. He’s not a Republican. I mean, he’s been a Democrat, he’s been a Republican. God knows what he’s been, but he’s not a Republican. And he said he wouldn’t support the Republican candidate necessarily blah blah blah. My point being: Two people won and neither of them was a Democrat or a Republican, right?

So when you say the leaders of the party, I’m like, “Really?” When you say, Is it possible that Americans want to hear the truth?, I’m like, “Really?” I don’t think that’s a question. I think that we’re despairing of this two-faced, manipulative fake language that everybody gets.
Everybody in America knows when you’re getting two-faced language. I mean it’s the thing I loved about those kids from Parkland. It’s like, they’re 17 years old! They have nothing to lose and they’re literally telling the emperor, “You’re naked as a jaybird, man.” It’s great! And you’re asking me, “Do I think Americans want to hear the truth?” Why do you think they love those kids? I love those kids! Because they were telling the truth and everybody knew it! We are so sick as a country of this lying—this dissembling and this fakeness, and unwillingness to deal with real issues. I mean, good grief! I’m sick to the teeth of this! And I think every one of my relatives and every one of my friends is so sick of these people thinking they’re so much smarter than we are, and they’ll just fool us. These answers—“We’ll send you our hopes and prayers,” after another massacre. Really? Your hopes and prayers? What a bunch of baloney!

You’re about to do this series of town halls about impeachment. What do you hope to accomplish with that? Is that a NextGen project?

I wouldn’t say it’s an official NextGen project. I am going to do it. In every single thing I do, the thing I enjoy by far the most and where I learn by far the most is having direct interactions with American citizens. I’m just telling you, it is so fun to go down to Modesto Junior College and talk to the students there. It is so fun to talk to home health care workers about what their job is like and what it means for how their family works, how their life works. I mean, we will be talking about impeachment, but I expect to be the biggest student at those things. They are really fun. I mean, yes we will be talking about how rotten this president is and why we need to get rid of him. But, I will also be hearing a lot from people about what’s really going on on the ground.