Environmentalist and former Democratic presidential contender Tom Steyer sees his role as California Gov. Gavin Newsom's chief adviser and co-chair of the task force on the state's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic as focusing on "equity and justice, sustainability and resilience."
Steyer, whose selection to the Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery drew concerns from some business groups because of his advocacy on climate change, spoke to POLITICO recently about his role, and the need to focus on minority communities that have been hit the hardest by Covid-19.
And the former hedge fund manager defended plans to focus any new energy efforts on clean sources over fossil fuels since they have "a much higher impact in terms of job creation than investing in other kinds of energy."
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you see tackling the issue of climate change or sustainability as part of the state's recovery process?
California has been leading the world for a long time in terms of having the most progressive energy laws in a multitude of ways, including the timeframe for becoming carbon neutral, but [also] in terms of EVs and in terms of building codes, in terms of renewable portfolio standards and on and on. We have our own cap and trade system. We have a very full suite built up over decades of energy, progressive energy regulations and climate rules.
One of the things that's going to happen, coming out of this crisis, is that there's going to be at some point an investment program into rebuilding California. The timing of that is a little uncertain, but you should know that our task force mission statement is very short. It basically says that we're going to advise the governor how to come out as fast as is safely possible, and that we're going to do it with an eye to equity and justice, sustainability and resilience.
We're going to put the communities — particularly the underserved communities, especially black and brown communities who have borne the brunt of this crisis from a health standpoint and also from an economic standpoint — they're going to be at the front of our thinking as we advise on policies to come out.
There was a recent report that said nearly 600,000 jobs in the clean energy sector have been lost since the coronavirus pandemic began. What role do you see clean energy playing specifically in how the state's economy is going to get back on track?
What I know is that investing in green energy has a much higher impact in terms of job creation than investing in other kinds of energy, and that's been true for a long time.
As we think about coming out of this really sharp economic slowdown and think about rebuilding the job base, there's a number of things that I'm sure the governor's been considering that includes literally job creation, equity, fairness in our society, sustainability and productivity going forward of our workforce and of our state.
As you think about that, there's not going to be one silver bullet, but specifically in there — and specifically in our task force mission statement — is the concept of sustainability, protecting the natural world and resilience.
What do you say to concerns expressed by the business industry that every sector, including the fossil fuel industry in the state, needs help to bring the state back up and running?
Look, we are supporting job creation in California. But what we also know — and you can go back if you're having sleepless nights and need to get to sleep, you can go back and reread all of our Risky Business reports from 2013, 2014, 2015. They were really arguments about why from an economic basis, sustainability [and] clean energy are actually things that will create more jobs, create better-paying jobs, create faster growth and avoid a host of problems as well.
So in fact, nothing that we're doing in the task force is contrary to the idea that we are supporting job growth consistently in every case.
Have there been any concrete goals or guidelines on the energy side of this and sustainability side of this that have come out? Is there a timeline for when those might come out?
We will end up with some principles about clean energy that will be put out, which aren't out yet, but which people are working on — just as we're putting out some principles about equity, so that as we think about giving advice and as people on the task force interact, we can agree on the basis on which we're having this conversation.
Are you looking at what any other state is doing in its recovery process, or at any other time in U.S. history, like the recession in 2008?
It's sort of funny, I am talking to some other people from other states who are doing some job comparable to mine, just to make sure that if they're thinking of something smart that they tell me what it is so we can try and be smart. If we're doing something smart, I try and share it with them so they can be smart. This isn't a competition between states.
It is very hard to compare this and I don't think it's a fair comparison to 2008, that was a housing-based over-leveraging of the financial system, which unwound over a period of a couple of years. It was a classic — although quite a sharp American recession — balance sheet recession. That is something which there are comparables for.
The last time the United States had a nationwide pandemic, as far as I can tell, was 1919 with the flu epidemic after World War I. We're [a] very, very different country now than we were then. We have a very different health care system. We have very different health and medical capability. Our economy is totally different. To a large extent, we're in a new pattern and one which is definitely different from 2008 and honestly, I think it's unique in our history in terms of both given the problem, what our ability to deal with it is and what are our choices.
During your presidential campaign you supported the Green New Deal. Are there any particular parts of that plan or any platforms that are coming out of the Democratic side of the presidential race that you see factoring into this economic recovery?
Before you get into a sector-by-sector analysis, in terms of cars and trucks, buildings, energy generation, I think the framework that I've always used in thinking about how to end up in a carbon-neutral society is to clean up energy generation, electrify everything, use as little energy as possible — be as efficient with energy as possible. That's part of it.
I think it's also true that there's going to be a lot of things that we do along the way to sequester carbon, things like literally planting trees. Are we going to end up having to clean up our energy generation? I think we obviously have to. If you have an electric vehicle and you plug it into a coal plant, that's not going to end up doing what you want. That electric vehicle is tapped into a very dirty energy source.
I think that way of thinking is right. And then I think you have to apply it sector by sector and it's going to drive some change. And I think that that change is going to drive some job creation, a lot more productivity and lower costs, because when I started talking about this, there was the argument we can't afford to do this — clean energy is too expensive. I think at this point, everybody understands that clean wind and solar are the cheapest energies, and going forward, they're going to get not only actually cheaper, but relatively cheaper.
How is environmental justice factoring into this discussion of how to rebuild the California economy?
My climate plan as a candidate was called a justice-based climate plan, because I believe you have to start with environmental justice. I worked here specifically to get rid of polluting fossil fuel plants in low-income neighborhoods. I know that if you go around California and you look and see where it's unsafe to drink the water that comes out of the tap, you will see that those are in low-income, black and brown neighborhoods.
Frankly, if you look at Covid-19, it is exposing and exacerbating inequality in our society in the exact same communities that I'm talking about in environmental justice. I think any climate plan has to start with environmental justice and justice more broadly. I think that is an idea which in California is widely accepted in practice.