Five questions for Tom Steyer on climate change

During a visit to Cargill, the philanthropist and advanced energy advocate talks about agriculture, business, and finding solutions.

By Carl Peterson March 19, 2015

What economic risks could climate change pose for different sectors of the economy? And what implications could this have for businesses as they seek to assess those risks?

Big questions like these were among those that the Risky Business project sought to tackle in 2014, when it released a report that used a classic risk-assessment analysis to evaluate potential impacts of climate change on the U.S. economy, including agriculture. Cargill Executive Chairman Greg Page was a member of the project’s risk committee.

To continue discussing issues raised by the report, Risky Business Co-Founder Tom Steyer  visited Cargill this week, where he joined Greg and Minnesota meteorologist Paul Douglas for a panel titled, “Climate change: The politics, the data and the need for a fresh dialogue.”

After the event, Tom sat down to answer a few more questions on the subject.

Q: What are your sources of optimism on the climate change issue?

inpage-tom-steyerTom SteyerTom: My source of optimism in this is that I believe in the American people and American business innovation, because I think that is what is going to do this for us. The American people are incredibly resilient and smart. American business is the best in the world. When it comes to doing new things, generating new ideas and then going to scale really rapidly, that is what we do. That is the hallmark of American business. So if you ask me if this problem is too big, I say absolutely not.

Q: How have your views on climate change evolved during your work on the Risky Business project? What have you learned?

Tom: First, even though climate change is a global issue, expressing it in local, human terms is the way that human beings relate to it, and that the more specific and local you can be, the more people will care about it. Second, regardless of how credible and relevant the message is, if you don't have a trusted messenger, someone that people can hear, you will never break through. It was shocking to me to see how much difference it made if you had somebody within a community who was trusted saying something that people didn't expect.

Q: After participating in Risky Business, what do you think are the biggest things you took away in terms of the relationship between agriculture and climate change?

Tom: I came into the project feeling as if agriculture was going to be one of the solutions, maybe the key driving solution, to the climate change issue, and that if people changed the way they raised crops or raised animals that it could make a gigantic difference for the planet. And I think I was reinforced with the idea that farmers can make a gigantic difference and that they can be incredibly granular in the way they think about their businesses.

Q: Some people point to the larger business community as a major driver of climate change, as well as a source of other environmental impacts. Can business be part of the solution?

Tom: I think that business has a couple of roles here. The one you alluded to is the idea that business carries out and creates the solutions for society’s problems. That is what it does. It’s done in a framework that is set up by the government. But businesspeople are the people who build the houses, they are the people who make the cars, they are the people who grow the crops, they are the people who run the stores. That is how our society works. So the solutions here, the innovations, are going to come from people working in businesses trying to figure out the way to deliver goods and services to their customers.

I think there is another role for business, and I think it is a critical role, which is that business has to be an advocate in this case for the idea that there is action needed and it is something which business can accomplish. So I see this as a question of business taking on an advocacy role within society. Because I think you want people who are credible, and the people who deal with issues like profitability, employment, the marketplace, and related issues are people who run companies. So it is really important that those people speak up and say this is something that is important and something that can be done.

Q: Obviously, this is a highly politicized topic, particularly in the U.S. How can we get past the politics at this point?

Tom: It is a really good question. We are trying. I think Risky Business is an attempt to take it out of the emotional and hypercompetitive realm of politics, and put it in the realm of commonsense analytics and risk assessment. It’s saying, Why don't we take a step back, take a deep breath, and ask each other what it is that we agree about here? Let’s try to look at the facts and see where a deep analysis of the facts takes us in terms of understanding the problem.

I think for us to solve this, all of us need to decide this is a problem we need to solve. I never preach to people that I have the solution. I simply say that as a nation if we decide this is a priority and we decide we are going to solve it, we will solve it!