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An Inconvenient Billionaire

An Inconvenient Billionaire

Tom Steyer is the kind of all American overachiever who seems to exist only on paper: number one in his graduating class at Phillips Exeter Academy, summa cum laude and captain of the soccer team at Yale, a Stanford MBA who became a superstar at Goldman Sachs and then went on to create the world fourth largest hedge fund, turning $8 million into $30 billion in about 20 years. His personal fortune is estimated at $1.5 billion.

So it a bit startling when the human r comes bounding out of a narrow brownstone in San Francisco Pacific Heights on a cool spring morning, pale legs exposed by knee length shorts, wearing white socks with black trail runners. With his flop of copper blond hair and his shaggy enthusiasm for a 7 am hike, he seems less like a Rockefeller than a golden retriever ready for his run.

As billionaires go, Steyer doesn conform to type. He drives an outdated hybrid Honda Accord and wears a cheap Ironman watch with a Velcro band. His “briefcase” is a worn out canvas bag exploding with papers. In front of his house is an exotic eco sculpture, built by a bohemian stonemason, that filters a fish pond by running the water through an elaborate cascading planter. “We the only people with hydroponic gardens in the state of California who don grow dope,” Steyer quips. “What a bunch of idiots!”

In San Francisco, of course, inconspicuous consumption and a small carbon footprint are common measures of status. But as Steyer and I huff and puff down a nearby trail, through shady cedar groves to a promised bay view, he lays out a vision for his life work that allows for at least one ostentatious trophy: to be the man who saved the world.

Since early last year, the 56 year old has been using his vast fortune to wage political warfare against climate change deniers, eco antagonists, and oil industry sympathizers. He started a super PAC that goes after candidates who support the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, the joint American Canadian oil project meant to help funnel millions of gallons of dirty fossil fuel from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for sale around the world. In Steyer view, the oil from the pipeline would produce enough carbon to send the world sliding into irreparable disaster.Canada Goose uk

“We don have time,” he insists. “This is an urgent issue. If we do nothing, we dead! We toast!”

Climate change isn something scientists argue about nowadays 97 percent of them agree it here and it our fault but politicians are another matter. Republicans, by and large, believe the threat is overblown. And even some Democrats argue that, despite the deleterious effects on the Earth atmosphere, the Keystone XL, the license for which President Obama will approve or cancel later this year, could goose the economy.

Steyer compares this thinking to a heroin addict logic. “You know what, I going to get off heroin, but hold on just a second because I just bought 10 pounds,” he says, sarcastically. “And when I done with that 10 pounds, I off! I done!For Steyer, the ticking time bomb of carbon dioxide levels the destructive output from burning fossil fuels is so loud that it drowns out all other issues. “There will be droughts, there will be floods, there will be oceans rising,” he promises. “So there going to be hundreds of millions of people with no water. Do know what people with no water will do?

“It like in Chinatown,” he says, “where he turns and says, Gittes, under the right circumstances, a man will do anything. believes we have to act now not 10 years from now.

With his square jaw and boxer nose, Steyer has the disposition of an Irish pugilist, an aggressive financier animated by a sporting esprit de combat. As an investor, he made his billions by taking stomach turning risks on distressed assets in volatile market conditions, such as the Thai baht crisis in 1997 and the dot com bust a few years later. He taking the same approach to Washington, betting on the ultimate distressed asset, the Earth, in hopes of reaping the not insignificant return of sustainable life on the planet.

And with that, of course, comes a powerful legacy as the man who forced the issue into a recalcitrant political system and saved us all. “This is something that important and big, right here,” he says. “I want to win this.”

Since stepping down from his firm, Farallon Capital Management, at the end of 2012, Steyer has hired a cutthroat political consultant and financed attack ads and armies of door knockers in Massachusetts and Virginia to defeat two candidates who supported the pipeline, all through a nonprofit political organ called NextGen Climate Action Committee. They weren exactly long shot races, but Steyer managed to put himself on the map with around $10 million and a sizable dose of chutzpah. There a price to be paid there.”

The unmitigated flow of money into politics isn everybody idea of a high minded solution. But Steyer takes a zero sum view: If moneyed oil interests are paralyzing our political will to confront climate change, then moneyed antagonists are required to counter them from the left. As he hikes down the trail “Good morning!” he says to every passing hiker he spends a fair amount of time contrasting himself to his analogues on the right, especially the Koch brothers, the plutocrats famous for backing pro business candidates with their group Americans for Prosperity. Steyer says coal industry baron David Koch is “taking the most incredible risk that I ever seen someone take, of going down in history as just an evil just a famously evil person!”

Measured political rhetoric is not Steyer style. But when we finally arrive at the plunging cliffside, with a stunning view of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge under a vaulted sky, the moneyman goes uncharacteristically silent. Standing near the edge, he turns to me and grins, his arms lifted in triumph, and presents the breathtaking horizon like it the last slide in his personal PowerPoint presentation.

“Yes!” he declares.

After the hike, we climb back into his wife Toyota hybrid and Steyer plays some Rod Stewart on the radio and idly recites Rud Kipling: “On the road to Mandalay / Where the flyin play / And the dawn comes up like thunder / outer China the bay grief!” he says. “They blocking my street.”

Steyer is taking us on a detour to show off a new house he and his wife, Kat Taylor, just bought near China Beach, a multimillion dollar fixer upper that looks out over a cliff to the glittering waters of San Francisco Bay. “Do the words water amenity mean anything to you?” he says, jovially.

Back in the neighborhood of Pacific Heights, at his old brownstone, Steyer shows me the oil paintings adorning his walls (“These are all living California artists,” he whispers) and proceeds to the kitchen for some organic tea. “Smell that lemon,” he says, holding up a Meyer, freshly plucked from his garden. “Sometimes I just squeeze them on my hands.”

On the walls are pictures of his four grown kids as towheaded children “boy, boy, girl, boy,” Steyer recites and his many beloved dogs, living and dead, all of whom have coffee mugs made in their likeness. His wife, an activist and lawyer who has five tattoos and the toothsome charm of Sally Field, drops in for some casual gossip about a financier who Steyer says has a “questionable business model.” The house has the homey, lived in feel of a guy who used to be a mere millionaire. Or maybe just a billionaire with limited pretensions.

Not that he laid back. Steyer idea of a Christmas vacation was taking his wife and kids on a five day hike to the peak of Kilimanjaro two years ago, where they gobbled acetazolamide pills to avoid altitude sickness. (Steyer saw the trip as a convenient diversion: His oldest son was doing nonprofit work in Tanzania at the time.)

Though he has choice words for David Koch, they both part of the billionaire boys club, and Steyer is an apologist for the winner take all world of capitalism. When I bring up the controversial role of Goldman Sachs in the 2008 financial crisis, when then treasury secretary Hank Paulson, a former Goldman CEO and a pal of Steyer appeared to favor his old firm during the multibillion dollar bailout, inspiring the 99 percent backlash, Steyer admits that his former employer “got deferential access and deferential outcomes, and that anybody who doesn get that is a fucking idiot.”

Steyer is himself part of the city hall machinery. When it comes to climate change, however, he the power willing to speak truth to the other power. “People are scared to tell the truth,” he says, lowering his voice to a serious whisper. “And you want to know something? They not stupid. Because you get punished for it.”

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