Tom Steyer's new book is 'Cheaper, Better Faster.'
Andrew Harnik—AP

In 1981, years before I founded an investment fund that grew to have billions of dollars under management and decades before I walked away from that fund to focus full-time on fighting climate change, I worked out of the Alaska state headquarters of Exxon.

I was 24 years old at the time. Business school was starting in the fall, and my job that summer was to help the state figure out how to spend its windfall tax revenue. In Alaska, “windfall tax revenue” means “oil money.” That’s why our offices were in Exxon’s building.

At the time, I didn’t see any contradiction between the work I was doing and the kind of person I wanted to be. Hardly anyone thought seriously about climate change back then. I certainly didn’t. I liked the work. I loved Alaska. I had never thought of myself as an environmentalist or conservationist, but I had always spent as much time as possible outdoors, and the Last Frontier was, by far, the most beautiful place I’d ever seen.

One landscape in particular made a powerful impression on me: a snow-filled valley stretched between two mountains outside Anchorage. Something about that spot—at once sparse and magnificent—stuck in my mind, so much so that 25 years later, in 2006, I brought my family up there. I couldn’t wait to show my partner and our four kids the beautiful landscape, to see their faces as they took in the vast glacial expanse just as I had a quarter century before.

But it was gone.

I’d read about climate change before that trip, but I’d always thought of it as something that might happen in theory, or on the margins, or in the very distant future, or somewhere far away from me. In an instant, I realized I’d been wrong. As an investor, I’d spent my career looking for patterns, assessing risks, responding to disruption, and looking around corners. I liked to think I was good at my job. And staring at this empty space, where a massive glacier had taken eons to form and less than 30 years to vanish, three things became suddenly clear.

First, climate change was real—and happening much faster than most of us imagined at the time.

Second, climate change would affect us all: economies, governments, businesses, societies. This will cause famines, I thought. This will cause wars.

The third thing I realized was perhaps the most important, although it was less a realization than a deep, immediate conviction: we can and must solve it.

I’ve always been an optimist, but my faith that humanity can overcome the climate crisis—and that America can and must lead the way—isn’t just a reflection of my personality. My parents belonged to the Greatest Generation, the one that fought and won World War II. When I was a kid, when two adults met, they didn’t ask each other, “What do you do for a living?” They asked, “What did you do in the war?” My father, for instance, was a successful corporate lawyer, but the accomplishment he was most proud of—by far—was serving as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials while in the Navy.

The America my parents taught me about was truly the home of the brave. In the face of the greatest threat our planet had ever faced, we didn’t lose our nerve or self-confidence. We did our part, as a country and as individuals. We transformed ourselves, on the battlefield and the home front, to meet the moment and lead the world to victory.

Maybe that’s why, as I learned more about the science of climate change and began to understand how quickly the planet was changing, I never felt depressed or overwhelmed. I did, however, start to believe that there was something wrong with the way I was living my life. I’d built and run a highly successful firm. I could pick up the phone and call my governor or senator about the issues I cared about. I’d even become, much to my surprise, a billionaire. But I wasn’t satisfied. This wasn’t the life I’d imagined. As much pride as I took in building a successful business, I wanted to be part of a great American success story, the way my parents’ generation had been.

On Jan. 1, 2013, I walked away from the business I’d founded and built over decades, and I devoted myself to fighting climate change. Since then, my partner of nearly 40 years, Kat Taylor, and I started a regenerative ranch dedicated to proving that you can raise cattle and have a negative carbon footprint. I co-founded Galvanize Climate Solutions, a new business that bets on companies that we believe can help us save the planet. I donated more than a quarter of a billion dollars to Democratic campaigns and causes, more than any other individual, making nearly all my Republican friends mad at me. Then, when I felt that neither party was focusing enough on climate, I entered the Democratic primary for President myself, making nearly all my Democratic friends mad at me.

I’ve now spent more than 15 years immersed in the science, politics, finance, and technology behind the fight to protect our planet, and ourselves, from climate change. But as important as those areas are, none of them is the reason I left my business behind to become a full-time climate activist. Instead, what drove me to change my life is the question I kept asking myself, one that kept me up at night in those years after I returned from my family trip to Alaska. Protecting humanity from climate change is the fight of our lifetime. Am I doing my part?

I’m not saying that you should drop everything and devote yourself full-time to climate—at least not necessarily. But I am saying you should think about it. If you want to lead an interesting, rewarding, and fulfilling life, the kind of life that makes a difference, there’s nowhere better to do it than as part of the climate movement. And there have never been more ways to join that movement than there are right now.

Though you don’t have to completely upend your life to do your part, there’s a good chance you’ll have to make big changes. To be a responsible person in today’s world, you need to understand the basics of what’s happening to our planet and how it affects us all. Most importantly, you have to make sure your actions reflect that understanding, not just at the margins, but by incorporating climate into every big decision you make—you have to become a climate person. “What are you doing to fight climate change?” is the “What did you do in the war?” of our time.

The debate over whether climate change is real has been settled. By this point, nearly all of us have experienced climate change firsthand. Look at what happened just last year, in the United States alone. If you’re from Phoenix, you experienced 31 straight days of temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re a New Yorker, you watched the sky go dark as your city was blanketed by smoke from wildfires hundreds of miles away. If you’re from South Florida, you stepped into an ocean that was literally as hot as a Jacuzzi. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press, a majority of Americans say they experienced extreme weather due to climate change last summer. No wonder that even the oil companies admit global temperatures are rising and that extreme weather is becoming more common.

But most people, even most climate-conscious people, still don’t realize that three trends have completely reset the trajectory of our planet, not over the last century but in the last few years.

Two of these trends are pretty depressing, and one is extremely encouraging. I’ll start with the bad news. The science—by which I mean the facts on the ground, as measured and understood by the most objective experts on climate—is much worse than we thought it was just a few years ago. For decades, we’ve known the basics: burning fossil fuels (mainly oil, gas, and coal) releases pollution (mainly carbon and methane gas) into our atmosphere more quickly than forests and oceans can absorb them. All this gas acts like a blanket for the earth, trapping heat and raising temperatures. As that happens, all kinds of weather patterns—patterns on which human beings have relied since the dawn of civilization—are disrupted.

What’s new is just how quickly this is occurring. The oceans are warming faster than scientists projected, especially at the poles. Greenland and Antarctica are losing much more ice to melting than we predicted, which will mean a greater rise in sea level. In 2022, the level of Antarctic sea ice was 9% below its historical average. In 2023, that number jumped to 17%. We don’t know what the exact number will be for 2024; all we know is that sooner or later, we’re going to lose enough ice to cause oceans to rise by several feet, and that hundreds of millions of people live within several feet of what we currently think of as sea level.

Climate isn’t like flipping a switch. When people say, “We have X number of years to solve this or we’re all doomed,” or, “We have to limit warming to such-and-such a level or humanity’s going extinct,” they’re oversimplifying things. The way I think about it is that while climate change is already certain to affect our lives, if we remain on the track we’re on, it will soon define our lives. In such a scenario, global warming won’t end human existence, but it will upend human society as we know it—not just in some places, but everywhere, the United States very much included.

Which leads me to the second depressing trend: the oil and gas companies don’t care. It’s not just the people who run companies that extract and burn oil, gas, and coal. Instead, I’m talking about an entire ecosystem: businesspeople, banks, insurers, politicians, consultants, tax lawyers, media figures, think tanks, and so many others who benefit from fossil fuels and the ridiculous amount of money they generate while ignoring the devastating costs to society.

For a while, it seemed that the oil and gas companies might transform themselves—mostly because they thought that elected officials and grassroots movements would force them to. But in the last few years their calculus has changed. Yes, their ads talk about doing the right thing for the planet. But if you look at the investments they’re making, and what they’re saying to their shareholders, they actually expect us to use just as much oil and gas in 2050 as we do today, or perhaps even more.

Here’s the good news, the other trend shaping our planet right now: as bad as the facts on the ground have gotten, and as determined as the fossil fuel industry is to resist any kind of meaningful change, clean-energy tech is much, much further ahead than most people realize. You’ve probably started to see some of this yourself. The cost of wind and solar have plummeted. Electric vehicles are on the roads. But these are only a few highly visible examples of a much larger phenomenon: clean energy is beating the fossil fuel industry in the marketplace.

Two years ago, I would have said that we were in the climate equivalent of Dec. 8,1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked and Americans realized that they couldn’t ignore the war, whether they wanted to or not. Today I’d say we’re in the equivalent of 1943. There are tough battles ahead. There are going to be plenty of difficult days, and heartbreaking news to go with them. But it’s clearer than ever that we can win. And not just that. If everyone does their part, we’re going to win. I have no doubt about it.

Here’s what winning means: if we can get to a point where the amount of global greenhouse gas pollution emitted into the atmosphere is balanced out by the amount absorbed—what the climate movement often calls “net zero”—it will be the climate equivalent of V-E Day. We’ll still have a lot of work to do, and the pollution already in the atmosphere will continue to affect us. But for the first time in modern history, we’ll no longer be contributing to climate change. And once that happens, we can truly begin to rebuild.

Excerpted from Cheaper, Faster, Better © 2024 by Tom Steyer. Published with permission of Spiegel & Grau.

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