Entrepreneur-turned-environmentalist Tom Steyer to alumni: We have got to make a change

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A "fireside chat" between Tom Steyer (left) and President Peter Salovey opened the first-ever Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Three years ago Tom Steyer ’79 retired from the private sector and sold his stake in the hedge fund Farallon Capitol to advocate for environmental protection and economic development. In the years since, he has helped support candidates and public officials who take a stand on climate action. 

So it was perhaps fitting that about an hour before he kicked off the first-ever Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit (YESS) on Nov. 6, Steyer, along with Yale President Peter Salovey, learned that President Barack Obama had rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, a battleground issue in the U.S. climate fight. 

During a “fireside chat” with Salovey minutes later, Steyer said Obama had to reject the pipeline in advance of next month’s climate talks in Paris. If U.S. leaders want other countries to make real climate commitments, Steyer said, the United States has to make some big promises of its own.

But it’s also a reflection of a new reality, Steyer noted.

“We’re going a different way,” Steyer told a crowd of more than 350 people in Evans Hall. “This was always at its heart a fight about whether the status quo was going to keep going.

“If you asked people on the other side, they would say, ‘Look, we have a ton of pipelines in the United States of America … this is how we power our country.’ [But] if you spoke with us, we would say, ‘Yes, that is how we have powered country, and if we do this it’s how we would power our country for another 50 years,’” he said. “And we can’t go there. We have got to make a change. We have to take the fork in the road and go to a different kind of energy source.”

So began the YESS summit, a first-of-its-kind gathering of Yale alumni aimed at tackling critical questions at the nexus of the world’s food, energy, and water systems.

The university-wide collaboration, originated by several alumni, was co-organized with the the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), the Yale School of Management (SOM), the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and other campus partners. Other speakers during the two-day event include Frances Beinecke ’71, ’74 M.F.S., former president of NRDC; Fred Krupp ’75, president of the Environmental Defense Fund; and former EPA Administrator William Reilly ’62.

Since retiring from the private sector, Steyer has worked to promote economic development and environmental protection in California and across the United States. In 2013 he founded NextGen Climate Action, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that supports candidates, public officials, and policymakers committed to taking action on climate change. 

Four years ago, he and his wife, Kathryn A. Taylor, donated $25 million to help launch an Energy Sciences Institute on Yale’s West Campus, which brings together faculty from the physical sciences fields to develop solutions to the world’s energy challenges. 

Forging a new economy built upon new and renewable sources of energy is not just a moral issue, Steyer told Yale alumni: It’s also good for the economy. And renewable technologies — including wind and solar — have evolved to the point that they are already competitive with costs from fossil fuel-based sources, he noted. 

“And if you look at what we can do in terms of demand-response and energy efficiency, that’s probably cheaper than any fossil fuel right now,” he said.

With additional support from government — including more research funding and rules on such concerns as air quality, building codes, and mileage standards — new policies can help make the clean energy even more competitive, he said.

Later in the discussion, Salovey asked Steyer why he decided to leave the life of a successful hedge fund manager to tackle environmental issues.

Beyond a desire to spend more time with his wife and four children, Steyer said, he had begun to assess the impact his work was having on other human beings and the planet.

“I think it’s very easy in a business career to miss those two points,” he said. “I realized, ‘Wow, I’m too focused.’ And I really wanted to [take] a broader view of what was important and to participate in a broader view. And I didn’t think I could do it from the perch I had created for myself.

“It wasn’t as though I wanted to do this, or I thought this would be a smart idea … I did it because I absolutely thought it was something I had to do.”

He added: “This culmination of environmental and economic justice is the big challenge of our generation,” he said. “And I really didn’t want to miss it.”

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