Tom Steyer: Being right isn’t enough

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Tom Steyer: Being right isn’t enough

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We need to compete more aggressively in the marketplace of ideas

Excerpted from Cheaper, Faster, Better © 2024 by Tom Steyer

As climate people, we have so many competitive advantages. We’re on the right side of history. We’re on track to produce better, cheaper, cleaner goods. We’re doing well on a playing field tilted against clean energy, and we will do even better if the field is leveled.

But all those things aren’t enough. We need to compete much more aggressively in the marketplace of ideas. Which means that if you’re already involved in the marketplace of ideas—if you work in communications, or advertising, or marketing, or public relations—then the climate movement needs your help more than ever. 

I’m an investor, not a communicator. I won’t pretend that I know exactly which messages will be most effective when it comes to climate. But I do want to step back and suggest a few broad ways climate people can beat the fossil fuel companies, not just when it comes to performance and price, but when it comes to persuasiveness as well.

First, we have to focus on people instead of nature. I can’t tell you how many ads I’ve seen that talk about how melting sea ice is threatening polar bears’ access to food. More generally, think about how often the case for climate action hinges on protecting a special landscape, or an iconic animal species, or an island halfway around the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I love nature. In fact, I think of climate change as just a broader symptom of humankind’s disregard for the natural world. I suspect that what sparked many people in the climate movement to get involved in the fight against climate change was something like my trip to Alaska with my family—a visceral understanding of the way global warming threatens the most beautiful places and species on earth. I also know that nature lovers make up the bulk of donors to environmental organizations.

Rightly or wrongly, hundreds of millions of human beings are not going to change their behavior so that polar bears can have more ice to fish from.

The problem with the save-the-polar-bears messaging, though, is that it preaches to the choir. If you’re trying to raise money from people who already support environmental causes, polar bear messaging might be effective. But if we’re trying to build a bottom-up, grassroots movement, we have to recognize that for most people—even those who think polar bears are beautiful creatures—saving the polar bears is not a top priority. Rightly or wrongly, hundreds of millions of human beings are not going to change their behavior so that polar bears can have more ice to fish from.

If we focus on nature instead of people, it also means we’re missing opportunities to help people understand just how much climate change is a story of human suffering. From the Marshall Islands to Miami, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Dallas, carbon pollution is already taking a terrible toll on our quality of life.

Even the fossil fuel industry and their allies concede this point. After last year’s unprecedented heat waves in Texas, the Wall Street Journal ran an article whose point was, “It’s not too bad, just stay inside from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m.” Popular conservative pundit Ben Shapiro made a similar point. “It’s hot outside,” he told his listeners. “You know what I can do about that? Zero things. Thank God we have this thing called air conditioning.”

Let’s consider for a moment that both the Wall Street Journal and Ben Shapiro, the same people who told us a temporary COVID stay-at-home order was the greatest assault on liberty in modern history, are totally fine with fossil fuels forcing us to stay indoors all summer, every summer, forever. 

Basically, the fossil fuel people are saying, “Reduce your quality of life in order to keep using outdated, dirty technologies,” and the climate people are saying, “Improve your quality of life—switch to something cleaner instead, that, in most cases, is cheaper, too.” 

We should be winning that debate hands down! But when we focus on nature instead of people, we’re not even making that argument, much less winning it.

Another way in which climate people fail to make our case is that we rely on journalists to make it for us. I have the utmost respect for journalists. In fact, my mother started her career working for NBC News, at a time when women had to fight tooth and nail to be part of a newsroom. She taught me that journalism is a calling. 

But while journalists often do an excellent job of covering climate, their job is primarily to document climate change, not to protect the planet from it. And because good reporters don’t want to be seen as taking sides on a politically controversial issue, they tend to balance the liberal and conservative points of view rather than highlighting an overwhelming consensus among scientists and experts. 

The more desperate the oil and gas industry becomes, the more aggressively they try to make climate a polarizing issue in our already polarized country. 

Both these tendencies mean that fossil fuel companies are incentivized to make climate as politically controversial as possible. Which is exactly what they’ve done. 

The more desperate the oil and gas industry becomes, the more aggressively they try to make climate a polarizing issue in our already polarized country. 

It’s gotten so bad that Chris Gloninger, a TV weatherman in Iowa, was forced to retire after receiving death threats for mentioning climate change in his reporting about natural disasters. 

He had his facts right. He was doing exactly what a good local journalist should do—inform people about what’s going on in their community. But the fossil fuel companies, along with their political and media allies, have made even basic, objective reporting feel like wading into politics and the culture wars. 

In large part because the fossil fuel industry has injected so much political controversy into what shouldn’t be a political issue, media outlets are often one step behind the facts. They’re comfortable reporting the weather. If that weather is extreme—a heat wave, drought, wildfire, or flood—they’ll cover it, too. 

But when it comes to climate—what’s causing the extreme weather, who’s responsible, what we’re likely to see in the future if we don’t act, and how we might prevent it—news organizations are generally risk-averse. 

Also, while reporters have access to people, they don’t always have access to all the information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to a journalist about climate, only to discover that, while they can get all sorts of scientists, politicians, and policymakers on the phone, they don’t know key details about what the latest research says, or what’s happening in the tech and business world. 

Reporters are on deadline, and climate is often just one of many areas they cover. They can’t go to all the meetings and conferences. They’re not in the room when early-stage cleantech companies ask for funding.

None of this lets journalists off the hook. They have an incredibly important role to play in our society, and we all rely on them to do their difficult jobs as well as possible. But we can’t assume that journalists—even those who work incredibly hard and do their homework—know everything climate scientists know about climate or that they feel free to express what they do know in a way that fully conveys the urgency of action. 

We can’t assume that journalists… know everything climate scientists know about climate or that they feel free to express what they do know in a way that fully conveys the urgency of action. 

Journalists have an important role to play in helping people understand the effects of climate change and the clean-energy revolution taking place. But as climate people, we can’t outsource the hard work of messaging to them. 

There are endless ways we can improve our ability to actively compete in the marketplace of ideas, and, I hope, a near-endless number of climate people who are ready to help think up those improvements. 

But for now, let’s focus on three important areas: naming, simplicity, and what people call “branding.” 

During my career as an investor, I learned that one of the most helpful things you can do in business is to come up with the right name for what you’re doing. 

I learned that lesson from David Swensen, the genius investor who for decades managed Yale University’s endowment. When Fleur Fairman and I originally asked him to invest money in Farallon, he turned us down. 

“We don’t like the way your structure works,” he told us frankly. “If you make money, you keep 20 percent of it as a fee, and if you lose money, you two are going to start a new business because you’re not going to want to have to make the money back before you get your 20 percent.” 

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I was ready to accept defeat, but Fleur was furious. “That’s a bunch of bullshit!” she said. “If that’s who you think we are, we don’t want your goddamned money anyway.” David replied, “Good. You got it.” He was the first institutional investor who gave us money. It changed our company, and made it—and me—a lot more successful.

 But that wasn’t the only way David shaped Farallon. During my first years in business for myself, I thought I was doing essentially the same thing I’d done at Goldman Sachs, point-to-point investing around specific, predictable events. 

We were expanding our horizons intellectually and doing things we’d never done at Goldman—everything from defaulted debt to real estate to film finance—but I still thought of myself as being in the risk arbitrage business. But David said, “I think you guys are sort of a new category. And it needs a name.” 

The phrase “absolute returns” came up in conversation, and it stuck. It didn’t change anything we were doing. Yet there was a huge difference between saying “we do risk arbitrage but slightly differently” and “we do absolute return investing.” Instead of being in the “risk” business, we were in the business of absolute returns.

The change in language helps people immediately understand what the stakes are, and why we need to act. 

It’s the same with venture capital. People have been lending money to their brother-in-law’s crazy idea since time immemorial. But give it a title, and help people understand it, and suddenly you have an industry. That’s what happened to us. When we found the right name for our work, suddenly more people wanted to be part of it.

Over the last decade, there’s been at least one huge win for climate people in this regard. Twenty years ago, we talked about greenhouse gas almost exclusively as “emissions.” “Emissions” is a neutral, scientific word. Yet greenhouse gas is not at all neutral, and its effects aren’t matters of scientific theory—they threaten life on earth as we know it. 

Today, while most people in the climate movement, including me, haven’t given up the word “emissions,” we’ve also begun to refer far more often to “carbon pollution,” which is just as accurate a way of talking about what oil and gas companies are pumping into the atmosphere. 

The change in language helps people immediately understand what the stakes are, and why we need to act. 

Climate people need more naming wins like this, and the sooner, the better. 

You may have noticed, for example, that throughout this book I’ve used “greenhouse gas” instead of “greenhouse gasses.” That’s because the former sounds like what it is—a type of dangerous pollution—while the latter sounds like something you’d learn about in chemistry class. It’s the kind of small change in phrasing that I believe can make a big difference…

This excerpt from Cheaper, Faster, Better © 2024 by Tom Steyer is published with permission from Spiegel & GrauOver the next two weeks, Steyer will speak with people around the U.S. about opportunities outlined in this book, including how we can unite to address climate change more effectively and transition to a healthier economy.

 You can register to join those conversations in Washington, D.C. with Bill McKibbon, San Francisco, and Los Angeles with Jane Fonda.

Written by

Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer is an investor committed to supporting the people and solutions addressing climate change. He founded NextGen America, the largest youth-voter engagement organization in the U.S. Its climate-focused messaging helped lead to record levels of youth turnout in recent elections. He co-founded Galvanize Climate Solutions, a climate-focused multi-strategy investment firm; Beneficial State Bank, a community development bank focused on the triple bottom line, justice and sustainability; and TomKat Ranch, a regenerative ranch dedicated to raising cattle with a negative carbon footprint. He played a key role in preserving California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, worked to pass clean energy initiatives and advocated for environmental justice. In 2020, Steyer ran for U.S. President with a campaign centered on addressing climate change, then served as co-chair of California’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, and co-chair of then-Vice President Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council, helping to mobilize climate voters. Previously, Steyer founded and led Farallon Capital to $36 billion AUM.