Why Billionaire Environmentalist Tom Steyer Is Funding Anti-Trump Ads

June 3, 2016, 3:00 PM UTC
National Clean Energy Summit 6.0 In Las Vegas
Photograph by Isaac Brekken — Getty Images

Energy ministers, global policy-makers, clean energy executives, and green investors met in San Francisco on Thursday to discuss how the world can help fix the changing climate, following the historic agreements made in Paris in December.

Meanwhile, 50 miles south of San Francisco, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has glibly said he’d cancel the Paris climate deal, prepared to hold a rally. If Trump is elected, he could make the environmental work by the energy leaders meeting in San Francisco more difficult to realize.

Many of those business executives and politicians dismiss the idea that Trump could simply rip up the agreement. But not too many are vocal in directly opposing him.

But one deep-pocketed investor is, and through his Super PAC, the NextGen Climate Action Committee, has been funding anti-Trump ads. One ad revealed in recent weeks doesn’t even directly address the issues of climate change or clean energy, but instead focuses on Trump’s anti-immigration and race-baiting statements.

Steyer was at the event on Thursday, called the 7th annual Clean Energy Ministerial, to promote some of the research that his group, the Risky Business Project—created with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson—plans to work on this year. The group will investigate the opportunities and risks that businesses could face by adapting to a changing climate.

Fortune sat down with Steyer to discuss the anti-Trump ads, the upcoming election, the private sector’s role in climate change and how technology can help countries meet their carbon emissions reductions goals as laid out in Paris. The following is edited for length and clarity.

Fortune: We’re at this event, which is a follow-up to the Paris climate agreement. The energy ministers are here looking at how technology can play a role. How can the private sector help countries meet their climate change goals?

Steyer: The normal way that I think about the relationship between government and business is that government sets up the framework for competition, and then business, if they get a long-term framework, competes within those goals. That’s the way it works in the U.S.

In this case, you’re not going to be able to set up those economic and energy frameworks unless business says it’s possible. I think the reason that Hank Paulson, Mike Bloomberg and I wanted to set up Risky Business was that we felt that a business voice on this is essential to an outcome. We felt that we both wanted to be part of that voice but also to move people in the business community so that you wouldn’t be getting push back from people who hadn’t thought that much about it. So it’s partially an educational thing.

You personally are very invested in the election coming up, or you will be. Donald Trump is in San Jose, Calif. today and he says he’s going to rip up the Paris Climate agreement…

Yes, and throw away the Clean Power Plan. And restore coal. I can take you through all of the other things he’s said he’ll do. . .

Your NextGen Super PAC has backed some anti-Trump ads recently, I was just watching one online, in which you’re speaking Spanish. Is a lot of your focus this year going to be on the ‘Don’t elect Trump’ message?

Well, I will say this. Our real focus this year is trying to push for the broadest participation possible. We want as many people registered, as engaged, and going to the polls as possible. All the academic studies today say that’s how you get the best result. In addition we think it’s really important to have a broad democracy, that’s a value in and of itself.

The anti-Trump ads are partially a reflection of our values. The ad you looked at was a visual juxtaposition of his really dangerous anti-immigrant statements and anti-American statements against the background of a very diverse group of Americans. At the same time that you could hear him say what I thought were extremely aggressive and profoundly unfair things, you could look at the people who it would actually affect and put it in the context of him making statements about human beings.

These are the people he’s talking about deporting. These are the people he’s talking about rounding up. These are the people who are being effected. Doesn’t it sound just really awful?

If what we really want is broad participation, then we want to bring the issues to the forefront that are going to engage people and get them to understand how important their vote is.

Is it a bit of a departure for NextGen Climate to fund ads that don’t have anything to do with clean energy or climate change?

If you look at our mission statement, it’s to prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for everyone. So actually when we think about what we are doing, we’ve always felt as if fairness and economic justice in society is something that’s at the core of our mission. People do think about us mostly for the first half of our mission statement, but our mission has always been that those two things are inextricably linked. So from our standpoint, this is right in the line with our mission.

Do you plan on funding more climate-change focused public outreach around the election this year?

Definitely. We’re doing a bunch of things around voter participation. Basically along the lines of our mission statement: End climate disaster and promote prosperity for all Americans. So we’re going to be out talking about those things in a variety of places.

You spent $74 million in 2014 on the election, and you plan to spend even more in 2016 on these issues in this election. You could be one of the largest contributors from Super PACs to the election. So the climate change debate, through the election this year, has one of the largest funding sources possible–is that fair to say?

When I think about this whole effort that we’ve been doing over the last three and a half years, elections are just a form for us to try to engage citizens in a conversation about values. So we see this election as a critical conversation about values. And if you look at that ad, which I think could fairly be construed as an anti-Trump ad, that is a statement about our fellow citizens.

Honestly if I look at this gathering of the Clean Energy Ministerial, part of what I feel is a need for participation. Complacency is as much our enemy as direct opposition. When I think about this campaign we see it as a forum for pushing the values that we care most about, including the ones in our mission statement but also about a broad democracy. We’re going to push on those as hard as we can. We feel really urgent about all of them.

Preventing climate disaster is really a health and economic issue, so really we feel that this is the opportunity to engage the country. We’ll see on Nov. 8 if the majority of Americans agree with us and where they do. I’m super optimistic about that. We’re standing up for the absolute bedrock of American values.

Sounds like a big year for you.

Well if you look at the climate statistics, we need a big year.

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