Climate-friendly billionaires are a bit of a paradox. Their multihome, private-jet lifestyles spew prodigious amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Even those who donate massively to environmental causes tend to be doing more to warm the earth than your average meat-eating car-driver subsisting below the poverty line.
There are two such paradoxical beings in the 2020 Democratic primary. Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg—each claiming to be champions of the planet—are running for president. If either of them really cared about the planet, there’s a better way to show that: by spending the money they’re currently blowing on their presidential campaigns on supporting Democrats in just about any other race, in the hopes of making climate change–fighting legislation a reality in 2021.
You’d be forgiven for reading these long-shot campaigns as a shopping spree. As reporter Alex Kotch pointed out, Bloomberg gave $320,000 to the Democratic National Committee in November for the first time since 1998. Last week, the DNC announced it would drop the individual donor threshold that kept him off the debate stage, breaking rules the body swore were sacred when it refused to modify its plans in order to hold a climate debate this summer. Tom Steyer bought his entry the honest way, with millions of dollars’ worth of advertising.
We should put some daylight between Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg here. They’re running for different reasons, after all. Steyer just wants to say, Hi, America: He says he wants to “change Washington, D.C.” and “level with the American people,” or something. Bloomberg—who spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention—got into the race after Joe Biden’s lead over his progressive opponents, specifically Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, started to shrink. As a result, it’s hard to see Bloomberg’s candidacy as anything other than an attempt to pull the race toward the center. Neither Steyer nor Bloomberg is the climate candidate in the primary, at least according to endorsements from major climate groups: While Steyer’s plan ranks second behind Sanders’s, according to Greenpeace, with an A, Bloomberg’s climate plan gets a C+.
Both Steyer’s and Bloomberg’s money could be better spent elsewhere. Consider the Senate, where big majorities would be an incomparable boon to passing comprehensive federal climate legislation. The average cost of winning a Senate seat in 2016 was $19.4 million. While both Steyer and Bloomberg have given to other campaigns, Steyer has spent $128 million—more than six winning senators’ worth of money—on his far-fetched presidential bid. Bloomberg’s Super Bowl ad alone would have gotten halfway there. Collectively, the two have already spent $300 million—15 senators!—on advertising alone.
Neither has slouched historically on state-level spending. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Steyer was the second-largest donor to Democratic and liberal candidates and caucuses, and the young-voter outreach group he founded, NextGen America, is still using his money to support big turnout efforts around the country. Bloomberg supports the Republicans and Democrats that he likes. But as one California Democratic campaign consultant told Reuters of Steyer, “Every dollar he spends on himself is a dollar that’s not going into something that can make a difference.”
If Steyer and Bloomberg do genuinely see the climate crisis as the greatest threat facing human civilization, why not go all-in on races that might actually change the outcome? And why sow disunity in the party, tipping the scales against candidates with robust climate platforms who could actually win? Their injections of cash could go an especially long way at the state level, where Democrats lost 1,000 seats and 12 governor’s mansions throughout the course of the Obama administration. Control of state legislatures can hinge on tens of thousands of dollars, in some cases, and mean the difference between passing strong state-level climate policy and not. And those state houses often set a remarkable amount of energy policy, in addition to controlling redistricting. Down-ballot fights are also talent pools for higher office. Investing in a promising state assembly member in North Carolina or Texas, then, could yield a Democratic senator in less than a decade.
It’s possible neither candidate is fully aware of these trade-offs. Billionaires—those with large philanthropic arms, in particular—are forever and always surrounded by yes-men who either work for or are eager to get money from them, including for projects that very much deserve to be funded. Bloomberg and Steyer have each funded their share of worthwhile climate work that has made the world a safer and better place, be that the Beyond Coal campaign or NextGen Climate. But earnest nonprofit executive directors and development staffers seeking another round of funding aren’t going to tell them or their top program offices they have terrible ideas. They’ll nod politely through on-the-house dinners in the hopes of another grant. When not at galas raising money for Important Causes, billionaires’ social lives are spent in the company of other rich people ensconced in similar dynamics. You can afford to surround yourself with people who agree with you. It’s possible that no one has told Michael Bloomberg the truth in 30 years.
If you had spent decades being told how interesting and important your ideas are, you might think you’re God’s gift to the Democrats, too. The basic conceit of philanthropy is that rich people are simply better at distributing society’s vast resources than the government is, basically just by virtue of having accumulated a lot of them. One percenters’ generous and emphatic support for mirage-based companies like Theranos, WeWork, Juicero, and the Fyre Festival is anecdotal evidence that this may not be true. But the more glaring proof is that the wealthy already enjoy an outrageous amount of control over our politics and are careening the planet toward catastrophe, doubling down on investments in the stuff that’s killing us. Contra Bloomberg and Steyer, the climate crisis isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved by throwing enough hoarded cash at it or by putting the right billionaire in charge, but by rethinking the kinds of things our economy rewards in the first place and their costs to the planet.
Bleak as it is to watch, the silver lining behind Bloomberg’s and Steyer’s election interference is that they’re making their own best case against billionaires.