Tom Steyer: An Inconvenient Billionaire
Credit: Photograph by Art Streiber

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's 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's a bit startling when the human résumé comes bounding out of a narrow brownstone in San Francisco's 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.

"Good morning!" he booms.

As billionaires go, Steyer doesn't 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 He drives an outdated hybrid Honda Accord and wears a cheap Ironman watch with a Velcro band.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're the only people with hydroponic gardens in the state of California who don't 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's 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's view, the oil from the pipeline would produce enough carbon to send the world sliding into irreparable disaster.

"We don't have time," he insists. "This is an urgent issue. If we produce this stuff in Canada, it's a 50-year supply, and I guarantee you they'll find more. If we do nothing, we're dead! We're toast!"

Climate change isn't something scientists argue about nowadays – 97 percent of them agree it's here and it's 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's 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's logic. "You know what, I'm going to get off heroin, but hold on just a second because I just bought 10 pounds," he says, sarcastically. "And when I'm done with that 10 pounds, I'm off! I'm done!

"Bullshit."

For Steyer, the ticking time bomb of rising 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's going to be hundreds of millions of people with no water. Do you know what people with no water will do?

"It's like in Chinatown," he says, "where he turns and says, 'Mr. Gittes, under the right circumstances, a man will do anything.' "

Steyer believes we have to act now – not 10 years from now.

With his square jaw and boxer's 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's 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's important and big, right here," he says. "I want to win this."