with Paulina Firozi

THE LIGHTBULB

Tom Steyer has staked his long-shot candidacy for president on climate change — and on South Carolina. 

The former hedge fund manager's argument that global warming will be felt most bluntly by black and brown communities is meant to resonate in a state where residents are already feeling its effects and where about 60 percent of voters in Saturday’s Democratic primary are African American.

“If you talk about climate, [it] has a dramatically important racial subtext,” Steyer told a crowd of several dozen at the historically black church in the coastal city of Georgetown on Wednesday. “And if you're not dealing with it, you're not actually dealing with the problem.”

His big-spending campaign has been airing at least three climate-themed television ads in the Palmetto State. And Steyer spent Wednesday and Thursday visiting the state’s coastal Lowcountry region. 

“I think environmental justice plays well here,” Steyer said in an interview in Charleston, which last year saw nearly 90 coastal flooding events. But he added: “I’m someone who’s been working on those things for a long time, too.”

Winning over African American voters will be key to a strong Steyer showing in the state that represents his best chance of staying afloat in the Democratic primary race nationally. After failing to notch a single delegate in the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Steyer may be making his last stand here, where polls show him running third behind former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 15 percent of the vote.

And the issue he has long championed as founder of NextGen America — an advocacy group pushing progressive solutions to issues like climate change — is moving to the forefront of voters’ minds. After years of being treated as an afterthought, candidates and voters are now taking Earth’s warming and the extreme weather it is making more common seriously. The Democratic electorates in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada each ranked climate change ahead of income inequality and foreign policy as their second-most-important issue, after health care.

Steyer’s strong showing in South Carolina is not just because of his message. Steyer spent $52.9 million nationwide on his presidential campaign in January alone. Though the campaign is not saying how much it is spending in South Carolina, the businessman has been able to amplify his message by tapping into his deep bank account to flood the radio and TV airwaves with ads and stuff mailboxes with pamphlets in the state. His wife, Kat Taylor, even moved to South Carolina for the 2020 campaign.

Steyer’s “justice-centered” environmental plan promises to declare climate change a national emergency if he wins the White House, while assuring activists the efforts to stop climate change don’t end up pushing polluters into poorer neighbors, which has sometimes happened in the past.

In South Carolina, he wants to build more housing to avoid or withstand changing conditions. “This is a big part of my climate plan — millions of affordable housing units done in a climate-smart way,” Steyer told the church crowd. 

Steyer rose to prominence in Democratic circles as a megadonor, spending tens of millions of dollars to help juice voter turnout for Democrats and stymie the construction of oil and gas infrastructure, such as the Keystone XL pipeline.

But the big spending by the two billionaires in the race, Steyer and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, has caused some consternation among Democrats about the outsize influence of money on the presidential race, with some accusing the business executives of trying to buy their way to Washington.

“One can come to the conclusion that he’s using this money to influence how people vote,” said state Rep. JA Moore (D), who is backing Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. He added of Steyer: “I appreciate the work he’s been doing with environmental justice.”

Elsie Graves, a retired real estate agent who lives in Myrtle Beach, appreciates how she is not pestered with requests for donations when she visits Steyer’s website. “So I kind of like rich people in the race,” she joked.

Her bigger concern was depriving Biden of a vote in his bid to beat Sanders. But Graves, whose home suffered more than $20,000 in damage during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, said she was reassured by Steyer’s commitment to act immediately on climate change. She said she will vote for him.

“On Day 1, he’s going to do something about climate change,” she said at a Steyer event at a packed Mexican restaurant Wednesday evening in Myrtle Beach.

Gladys Grayson, a member of the church in Georgetown, said her primary concern was getting Trump out of the White House. “I don’t think he should be in office at all,” she said.

After that, it’s climate change. “We’re having more floods,” she said. “It’s hotter. It rains more often.”

Melvin Wright, who runs an auto shop in Florence and is considering voting for Steyer, saw “a ton of jellyfish” — an animal that thrives in warmer waters — washed ashore when he lived in Myrtle Beach. “The world is very upside down,” he said.

Read more here:

POWER PLAYS

— Judge says Trump policy undermined public input: In a win for environmentalists, an Idaho federal judge voided 1 million acres of oil and gas leases out West, ruling the Trump administration's move to limit public input on leasing decisions was “arbitrary and capricious,” The Post's Juliet Eilperin reports. The ruling overturns a 2018 directive that was “aimed at accelerating energy leasing by streamlining environmental reviews and reducing the amount of time the public could comment on, and later protest, any leases.” 

  • The ruling: U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush ruled: “Faster and easier lease sales, at the expense of public participation, is not enough.”
  • The challenge: “The two groups that challenged the directive, the Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, said the decision provided a respite for species that are threatened by energy development. Once numbering as much as 16 million, development and disease has shrunk the total number of greater sage grouse to fewer than 500,000," Eilperin adds.

— Arctic drilling operators can’t accurately pinpoint polar bear dens, study says: Infrared technology mounted on airplanes, a method used by fuel companies to avoid polar bear dens before they search for oil and gas, work less than half the time, according to new research published in the journal PLOS One. 

  • Why it matters: The study found the method missed 55 percent of dens known to exist west of the Alaskan refuge off Prudhoe Bay, The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. That leaves mother and cub bears at major risk while in their dens hidden under ice. “The study comes five months after the Trump administration announced a controversial proposal to allow petroleum operations in the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the most aggressive of five listed options."
  • To quote: “We froze our bleeps off out there,” Tom S. Smith, a study co-author and associate professor at Brigham Young University, told Fears. “I mean, it’s rough. When someone is telling us there’s a den here and we invest a lot of time and a lot of effort and there’s nothing there, and then we’re going down the sea ice 10 miles away and there’s a den when they said there wasn’t any, we took it kind of personal. We said this is useless. This is not working.”

— House Democrats unveil environmental justice legislation: House Natural Resources Chairman Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) introduced an environmental justice bill to “expand the National Environmental Policy Act and slap new fees on oil, gas and coal to fund communities transitioning away from fossil fuel economies,” E&E News reports

  • A long-awaited effort: “The legislation faces an uphill battle in Congress this year, but it represents an unusual effort by lawmakers to reach out to communities affected by pollution to pull them into the larger congressional conversation about climate change and the environment.”
  • To quote: “For too long, low-income communities, tribal and indigenous communities, and communities of color have been shut out of the decision-making process and left without the tools to fight back when big corporations set up shop in their back yards,” Grijalva said in a statement.

— Democrats question Andrew Wheeler over EPA cuts: Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee told the EPA administrator they plan to reject the Trump administration’s proposed 26 percent cut to the agency, which The Hill reports is “one of the steepest in the budget.” The proposed budget includes slashing the Superfund program, even while agency data shows an at least 15-year backlog in cleanup projects. 

  • What Dems said: Panel chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) asked: “Why are you proposing a cut of more than $112 million when you seem to imply you could use more money?”
  • What Wheeler said: “Wheeler said the agency would be able to recoup some costs from corporations but defended the agency’s record, saying it had been closing Superfund sites at a rapid pace,” per The Hill.

— The worries over a new New York bag ban: A statewide ban on single-use plastic bags will go into effect on Sunday, and businesses are anticipating increased costs and unhappy customers, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

  • What to expect: “Under the new law, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed last April, all retailers that are required to collect sales tax are subject to the plastic-bag ban,” per the report. Prepared foods from restaurants and delivery companies, as well as prepared foods and unpackaged produce at grocery stories and delis will be exempted. Still, plastic bags won’t be available at checkout lines. 
  • Here’s what one business owner said: Phil Penta, managing partner of the open-air produce market 3 Guys From Brooklyn, "said he wants to be environmentally friendly but worries about what the ban will do to his bottom line. He recently bought 92,500 plastic bags, which will last him between 10 and 14 days, for about $2,000. The same number of paper bags would cost $15,000, he said…..'Will people be more likely to shop online because they don’t feel like carrying reusable bags around?’ he said.”

— The unrecorded deaths in mining: When miners work in small-scale or illegal operations — as about 90 percent of miners in the world do, according to the World Bank — it could lead to uncounted casualties.

  • The details: “Those miners — who dig up materials used in cars and smartphones, among other products — are frequently operating in emerging economies like India, in dangerous conditions with no safety regulations, poor equipment and a culture of risk-taking,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “When tragedies occur, few of the deaths are recorded as mining-related, partly because governments frequently fail to properly document such fatalities and some smaller companies don’t want to invite increased regulatory scrutiny, mining experts say.”

DAYBOOK

Coming Up

  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a hearing on the 2021 EPA budget request on March 4. 

 

EXTRA MILEAGE

— This is how challenging it is to forecast storms: Weather satellites confirmed a bizarre strip of snow over Kansas, “which highlights the meteorological caprice that can give rise to such narrow swaths of snow. More than a foot of snow fell in the band, which was only 10 to 15 miles wide at times. Just a few miles on either side, there were hardly flurries,” The Post's Matthew Cappucci writes