Climate-conscious billionaire warms things up in Pa. for Clinton, McGinty, liberal agenda

USA-POLITICS
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer believes voters will back action against climate change when they are convinced it will better their lives directly, and in their communities.

Forget the cute polar bears and abstract warnings about the effects of a warming globe.

Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer believes voters will back action against climate change when they are convinced it will better their lives directly, and in their communities.

"We know that accelerating the move to clean energy will create millions of new jobs," Steyer said in an interview Thursday. "What are the jobs? Where are they going to be? Who's going to get them, and when? If you're not talking about specific projects and specific jobs, people can't relate to it."

Steyer, who made his fortune running a hedge fund and now heads the activist group NextGen Climate, plans to spend millions to push the issue in this year's presidential election cycle - more, he has said, than the $74 million he poured into the 2014 congressional midterms.

He was in Philadelphia on Thursday to kick off a statewide campaign to boost Democrats Hillary Clinton and Katie McGinty, the party's nominee for U.S. Senate. The organizing project will be funded by NextGen and several powerful labor unions through For Our Future, a super PAC that aims to raise and spend $50 million.

Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump is a particular target of the group's ire.

For Our Future's backers include AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO and the National Education Association. It plans to raise cash from outside donors and to work in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Nevada along with Pennsylvania.

In addition to climate change, the effort will advocate for "shared economic prosperity," public-school funding, and racial justice. Organizers hope to build a liberal infrastructure that will live beyond 2016.

"This campaign is about getting back to the basics of organizing ... real conversations, eye to eye and heart to heart," Lee Saunders, president of AFSCME, said in a news conference starting the venture. "We'll be on Facebook and Twitter, sure, but more importantly, we'll be in the neighborhoods."

Saunders called Trump "a charlatan and a fraud who doesn't care about our families and communities." The New York businessman also rejects the view that the global climate is warming and that human activity is to blame.

Erin Kramer, leader of the liberal group One Pittsburgh, said that only an ongoing grassroots campaign can empower working people to change "an economy that is not working for us."

Steyer said in the news conference, held at AFSCME's District Council 33 headquarters at 30th and Walnut Streets, that in the United States, "our race, our gender, and our zip code too often determine our destiny." For Our Future's goal is to chip away at that.

In the interview, Steyer maintained that the broad agenda of For Our Future is complementary to the struggle to fight climate change.

NextGen also is launching a $25 million effort called Youth Vote to register and mobilize young voters around climate change issues on 203 college campuses in seven states - Pennsylvania, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Nevada, Illinois, and Colorado.

In Pennsylvania, the project plans to have 200 staff organizers working on 70 campuses.

Just 41 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds voted in 2012, down from a record high of 48 percent in 2008, according to the nonprofit U.S. Elections Project.

Steyer said climate change has risen as a concern of voters. He cited a recent spike in world temperatures and polling that shows vast support for moving toward clean energy sources such as solar and wind power.

NextGen wants 50 percent of U.S. energy needs to be met by such sources by 2035.

"If you look to four years ago, the Democratic candidate, the sitting president of the United States, Barack Obama, was running on 'all of the above' [energy strategy] and clean coal," Steyer said. "I don't think you could seriously run for the Democratic nomination on that platform. ... I know there's been a gigantic change."

tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

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