'He is getting more progressive across the board': Tom Steyer on getting out the climate vote for Joe Biden

The billionaire environmental activist is co-chair of the Biden campaign's 'Climate Engagement Advisory Council'

Louise Boyle
New York
Monday 13 July 2020 14:42 BST

The climate crisis is viewed with more urgency than ever before by Democrats, according to a raft of recent polling, and is particularly palpable among young and first-time voters.

It’s a shift in sentiment that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign who have coalesced around the issue in the hope of driving voters to the polls for the presumptive Democratic nominee come November.

“This is a question about who shows up at the polls,” billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer told The Independent, after being chosen by Mr Biden to head up his “Climate Engagement Advisory Council” earlier this month.

"After four years of Donald Trump, I think people understand how huge a choice this is, and how different the views of the future and the values are of the two candidates.”

Mr Steyer, 63, who ended his own presidential run in February, is co-chair of the six-person council tasked with “mobilising” voters, including the young, people of colour and union workers, who prioritise the climate and environmental justice.

The former hedge-funder gained traction with Democrats in primary season by putting climate front and centre with his lengthy “justice-centered” plan and a promise to plow trillions into a climate-friendly infrastructure overhaul. In one primary debate, he criticised Mr Biden for not prioritising climate, while the VP shot back by pointing out Mr Steyer’s past investments in coal. (The billionaire says he divested from fossil fuels a decade ago).

Those skirmishes are now water under the bridge. Along with his council role, Mr Steyer has tapped his fundraising network to so far raise $8.4m for the Biden campaign, according to Politico.

Mr Biden has walked a fine line with his climate agenda in an effort to avoid alienating centrist Democrats, like the blue-collar workers of industry-heavy swing state Pennsylvania, while still appealing to the progressive, liberal wing.

He has drawn criticism from young climate activists for refusing to fully endorse the Green New Deal, and commit to a ban on fracking. At times, he's shown a dismissive attitude to their concerns.

Surveys in May, conducted by the Center for American Progress, found that Mr Biden was on shaky ground with younger voters in 11 states still in play.

But while younger generations have traditionally sat out elections more often older groups, there has been a groundswell of political engagement since President Trump’s election. A Tufts poll at the 2018 midterms found nearly a quarter of those aged 18-24 had attended a march, walkout, strike or engaged in civil disobedience.

The sweeping 2020 Youth Electoral Significance Index also found that young people are likely to have a significant impact on who wins the White House in 2020, along with the direction of Congress.

Mr Biden’s campaign has taken swift steps to capitalise on the momentum. A “climate unity” taskforce was established, led by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry, to pull together progressive and establishment Democrats.

Last week, that taskforce released recommendations for Mr Biden’s platform, including eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035; achieving net-zero emissions for all new buildings by 2030; and vast expansions of solar and wind energy in the form of 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines.

The presidential hopeful now looks set to embrace many of those recommendations this week, according to a Washington Post report on Sunday.

Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont who ended his presidential campaign in April and has also endorsed the former VP, told MSNBC that the evolved agenda will make Mr Biden “the most progressive president since FDR”.

Mr Steyer said that he is pushing “for the most progressive climate plan possible”.

“I think that Joe Biden has been sharpening his pencil in terms of this policy overall. He's been filling it out and it's been getting more progressive across the board,” he added.

Mr Biden is doing better with young voters at this point in the race compared to Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to polling this month by Mr Steyer’s organization, NextGen America.

Some 51% of 18-34 voters support Biden, compared to 29% backing Trump.

In a poll earlier this year on Mr Trump's climate record, more than half (54%) gave him a “D” or “F” on his performance - perhaps inferred by his climate denial, the waves of environmental rollbacks by his administration and his continual cosiness with the fossil-fuel industry.

But the NextGen poll also found weak spots: Around 9% of the “potential Biden” youth electorate plan to vote for third party candidates or sit out the election. And Democrats are acutely aware that razor-thin margins can have profound consequences.

While the climate engagement council has a diverse make-up, it lacks a younger representative who could speak specifically to the concerns of the Millennials and Gen-Z voters that Democrats are keen to attract.

Mr Steyer indicated he would push for younger person to join the council.

“I am a strong believer in having young people as part of any effort that reaches out to young people," he said. “I will be advocating for that in this situation. I'm serving as an advisor to the Biden campaign but that's what I will be pushing for because that's what I believe in.”

The climate crisis disproportionately affects low income communities and people of colour, as Mr Biden has increasingly referenced.

A Yale study in April found that Hispanics and Latinos (69%) and African Americans (57%) were more likely to be alarmed or concerned about global warming that whites (49%). And the Black Lives Matters protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd has put injustices and inequality at the forefront of the national consciousness - and Democratic campaigns.

The Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project, which has surveyed more than 6,000 people each week for the past 12 months, suggests younger black Americans don’t support Mr Biden as strongly as older black voters, the Washington Post reported.

And while Biden is stretching out ahead of President Trump among Latinos - 59%-39%, according to a PBS/NPR/Marist College poll in June, he is still behind Secretary Clinton and President Obama, who won 66% and 71% of the Latino vote in 2016, and 2012, respectively, Pew Research Center Analysis found.

Mr Steyer said that his role is to connect Mr Biden and his climate plans with the diverse communities he has “worked with for a long time”.

“I think it’s something that Joe Biden really does feel in his bones, that he really does get," he said.

"He looks at most issues on a human basis and he knows what it feels like to talk with people from Flint, Michigan, and the other parts of US where drinking water will make you sick... People with asthma where there are chemical plants or big bus routes that overwhelmingly [affect] black and brown communities.”

Traditional voter outreach, on climate issues and beyond, has been stymied by the coronavirus pandemic which continues to roil the US and looks set to curtail traditional campaigning all the way to the election.

It’s put paid to the typical star-studded Democratic events of the past along with the folksy meet-and-greets where Mr Biden is known to shine.

But there’s always Zoom. Mr Steyer says that following video calls, he tries to gauge reactions and gather suggestions on what has become an integral part of campaigning in 2020.

Mr Steyer said: “Overwhelmingly people came back and said, not just that they were impressed, but they were surprised by how impressed they were.”

Generating enthusiasm is one thing but a “big part of the fight”, Mr Steyer says, is protecting the integrity of the system.

In 2016, 4 percent of registered voters did not got to the ballot box because of "registration problems," according to a Pew analysis of census data. Across the country, 4 million more people were purged from voter rolls between 2014- 2016 than 2006-2008, according to a 2018 report.

Cuts to voter rolls and the passage of voter ID laws disproportionately affect low-income and people of colour, who make up a broad swathe of the Democrat base.

There has also been a concerted effort, including by President Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr, to undermine the mail-in ballot system, which has become even more crucial during the pandemic.

Mr Trump has tweeted unsubstantiated attacks on mail ballots, claiming they will lead to widespread fraud and that foreign governments will try to dump millions of forged ballots into the system.

“It's particularly important at a time of COVID-19 because of the need for so many people to vote by mail,’ Mr Steyer said.

“The baseless argument that there is cheating and therefore they should restrict vote by mail is really just another attempt to suppress the votes of American citizens that they think won't vote for them.

"So while we're fighting to energize and mobilize young voters, black voters, Latino voters, people across the spectrum, we are also fighting to protect the system itself and make it as fair, democratic and inclusive as possible.”

Mr Steyer says 2020 needs to be a “transformational sweeping election”.

"There's no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of Americans want what [Joe Biden] stands for, want him over Donald Trump," he said.

"So to me, the question is, do we give Democrats a good enough positive reason to show up for Joe Biden?

“That I believe is going to be a resounding statement about the transformational change that we need for climate, and for so many other things in America, so we turn the page on what has been a disastrous time in American leadership."

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