Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer has spent millions of dollars trying to make climate change a major issue on the 2016 campaign trail. But neither the candidates nor the voters seem to notice.
After one of the Democratic presidential debates, Mr. Steyer issued a statement lamenting that the focus on climate change was “far too brief.” Following a Republican debate, he expressed outrage that “not a single Republican presidential candidate took this threat seriously,” to which he added, “And that’s why not a single one of these candidates is qualified to get anywhere near the Oval Office.”
To be fair, Mr. Steyer does appear to hold sway over the Democratic presidential candidates. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have, at Mr. Steyer’s insistence, pledged to achieve at least 50 percent “clean” energy by 2030. Mr. Steyer, who has yet to throw his support behind a candidate, appears to be dangling his wealth and endorsement over the Democratic candidates to cajole them to do even more.
Just days before the New Hampshire primary, Mrs. Clinton was asked if she would support banning the extraction of natural gas, oil, and coal on public lands. “Yeah, that’s a done deal,” was her reply. Clarifying her position to another activist, she said, “No future extraction. I agree with that.” Similarly, Mr. Sanders has co-sponsored legislation in the Senate that would block the development of these resources on federal lands. According to a recent study commissioned by the Institute for Energy Research, of which I am president, these “keep it in the ground” proposals would forgo millions of jobs, trillions of dollars in higher wages, and $20.7 trillion in economic activity.
Fortunately, on the whole, Mr. Steyer’s campaign to restrict affordable and reliable energy isn’t getting many converts. Mr. Steyer spent $73.7 million of his own money in a failed effort to make climate change a major issue in the 2014 elections. He wasted millions of dollars on ads that often didn’t even address climate change and whose truthfulness was disputed by fact-checking organizations like Poltifact and Factcheck.org. After his nearly yearlong campaign, climate change actually dropped as a priority among voters, ending up near the bottom of their list of concerns.
Mr. Steyer shouldn’t be entirely surprised if presidential hopefuls aren’t jumping through his hoops with enthusiasm. In a recent Gallup poll of the most important problems facing the United States, climate change was not even listed. The broader “Environment/Pollution” was in 18th place as a concern of just 2 percent of the respondents. The political reality is that candidates must attract the mainstream electorate, who prioritize the economy, jobs and poverty — issues that are in direct conflict with Mr. Steyer’s goals.
Mr. Steyer’s own state of California is ripe with examples of his agenda clashing with the people’s needs. Due in part to regulations that require non-hydroelectric renewables to represent 33 percent of the state’s electricity supply by 2020, residential electricity bills are nearly 40 percent higher than the national average and the ninth highest in the nation. Nevertheless, last year, Mr. Steyer testified in favor of legislation that would have bumped the current 33 percent renewables target up to 50 percent by 2030.
Mr. Steyer also supports California’s cap-and-trade program, which could raise gasoline prices by anywhere from 16 cents to 76 cents per gallon. Meanwhile, he’s pushing a ballot measure that would impose a 10 percent tax on oil extraction. This tax would, of course, raise gasoline prices for the state’s motorists, who already pay a 59 cents per gallon gas tax — one of the nation’s highest and about 11 cents more than the national average. Even without new taxes, California already has some of the highest gasoline prices in the country.
Higher energy costs have created a serious problem in California. According to a report by the Manhattan Institute, one million California households live in energy poverty, which is defined as a household in which 10 percent or more of the residents’ income is spent on household energy costs (excluding gasoline and other transportation-related costs). Higher energy costs leave these families with less money to spend on other necessities like groceries or proper healthcare.
Candidates seeking the presidential nomination — particularly in the Democratic camp — can’t square their rhetoric with their policies. They claim to help the poor, but they support energy policies that will make it harder for low-income families to make ends meet. Meanwhile, poll after poll shows Americans are more concerned about growing the economy and creating jobs than sacrificing their economic futures at the altar of Tom Steyer’s climate agenda.
• Thomas J. Pyle is the President of the American Energy Alliance.