Environmental activist and billionaire Tom Steyer told an Aspen audience Wednesday that endangered polar bears and melting glaciers won’t cut it when it comes to convincing Americans to care about climate change.
Steyer said during a presentation at the annual American Renewable Energy Day Summit that climate activists are going to have to show people in each state or region how a warming planet will affect them.
“The question is, how are we actually going to make this relevant to Americans?” Steyer said. “The answer, I think, is it has to be local and it has to impact the individual people.”
Research performed for his political action committee, NextGen Climate Action, indicates that voters won’t respond to issues far removed from their area, even if they are rooted in scientific fact, he said. So voters can learn about how the warming planet is shrinking habitat for polar bears, but it won’t necessarily affect their thinking.
“Do people care about the polar bears? Sure, they care about the polar bears. Do they care about the polar bears enough to change their vote? Absolutely they do not,” Steyer said.
Steyer has already spent $20 million in the campaign for the 2014 midterm elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Democratic supporter has pledged millions more. Steyer is regarded as the liberal counterweight to the conservative Koch brothers.
Steyer indicated that his PAC will hammer on specific messages tailored to specific states.
For example, he said, farmers in Iowa will pay attention to climate change when they realize it could adversely affect the productivity of the land and potentially drive down the high price of farmland, which has climbed to $10,000 per acre.
In Florida, the message will be that storm surges from hurricanes will drive water deeper into the land as sea levels rise, he said.
“Everybody knows that Miami is the most exposed city in the world from climate change,” he said.
Steyer delivered his remarks during a session titled “Armchair Conversation: Politics, Climate Change and History,” which also featured Theodore Roosevelt IV. Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley led the discussion. Wednesday was the last of four days for the renewable-energy summit, being held at the Hotel Jerome.
Brinkley noted that Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” struck a nerve with the public in 1962 because people understood the implications of pesticide and fertilizer use in their own neighborhoods. They realized their own kids might be getting sick, he said.
Steyer said the first Earth Day in April 1970 motivated 22 million Americans across the country to rally because they could see dirty air and polluted water in their neighborhoods.
The concerns spurred President Richard Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Steyer is putting his money where his mouth is to build support to act on climate change.
His super PAC is targeting political races in key states this year, including Colorado. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, will get Steyer’s support in his tight race against Rep. Cory Gardner.
“One of the things we’re looking for is where there’s a big distinction between the candidates,” Steyer said.
The League of Conservation Voters gave Udall a high mark of 97, while Gardner received only a 9, in the ratings for votes on environmentally connected issues, he said.
“That’s such a big spread, I think you could drive a semi-truck through that one,” Steyer added.
American Renewable Energy Institute founders Chip Comins and Sally Ranney presented Steyer with a Climate Hero Award after the armchair conversation. It recognized his effort to promote renewable energy and improve the environment.