“I feel like the guy in the movie who goes into the diner and says, ‘There are zombies in the woods and they’re eating our children,’ ” Steyer said during a recent breakfast at the Georgetown Four Seasons, his first appointment in a day that included meetings with a senator, a White House confidant and other D.C. luminaries.
It’s a somewhat shocking statement for someone who’s in the running to succeed the cerebral Steven Chu as energy secretary. Granted, he’s a long shot — the leading contender is MIT professor Ernest Moniz, who served as the department’s undersecretary during the Clinton administration — but his backers say his strength lies in combining business savvy with an activist’s passion.
John Podesta, who chairs the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said Steyer has “got the right skill set, the understanding and attitude to lead an energy transformation in this country.”
“I think he would be a fabulous choice for energy secretary,” Podesta added, “and I’ve let my friends in the administration know that.”
But it’s not as if Steyer, 55, needs an official government perch to make an impact. Armed with his wealth and his political connections, Steyer has played a critical behind-the-scenes role in helping shape the country’s national energy policy. He has helped bankroll two successful ballot initiative campaigns in California since 2010, including one last fall that closes a corporate tax loophole and steers $500 million toward energy-efficiency projects for each of the next five years. He has funded initiatives at the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress, along with major research centers at Yale and Stanford. And he has spoken with President Obama about how to pursue climate and energy policy in a second term.
But Steyer is taking on a more prominent public role. On Sunday, he spoke to a crowd that organizers estimated at 35,000, gathered on the Mall to call for a stronger national climate policy.“I’m not the first person you’d expect to be here today. I’m not a college professor and I don’t run an environmental organization,” he said. “For the last 30 years I’ve been a professional investor and I’ve been looking at billion-dollar investments for decades and I’m here to tell you one thing: The Keystone pipeline is not a good investment.”
The move stems from an uncomfortable conclusion Steyer has reached: The incremental political victories he and others have been celebrating fall well short of what’s needed to avert catastrophic global warming.
“If we can win every single battle and lose the war, then we’re doing something wrong,” he said, moments after consuming two mochas on the table before him.
The simultaneous mocha-drinking is understandable: Steyer had arrived just hours before on the red-eye, which he chooses over a private jet to reduce his carbon footprint. He may have built one of the nation’s most successful hedge funds — Farallon Capital Management, named after the waters off San Francisco Bay teeming with great white sharks — but he’s not flashy.