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Billionaire Philanthropist Tom Steyer Announces 2020 Presidential Bid

Politics
Billionaire Philanthropist Tom Steyer Announces 2020 Presidential Bid
Tom Steyer speaks during the C40 Cities For Climate: The Future Is Us event in San Francisco, California on Sept. 12, 2018. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

By Jon Queally

Despite repeated assurances he would not do so, billionaire philanthropist and activist Tom Steyer — who has previously pledged his vast fortune to such causes as defeating the Keystone XL pipeline and mounting a national campaign demanding the impeachment of President Donald Trump — officially announced on Tuesday the launch of a 2020 campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.


"It's true," Steyer said in a post on Twitter along with a kick-off campaign video. "I'm running for president."

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Tom Steyer Announces Candidacy for President: “I am running to end corruption of our democracy by corporations and give more power to the American people. Jo...

While Steyer's work as a hedge fund manager and financier has resulted in what Forbes estimates is a $1.6 billion fortune, the newly-announced candidate states in his launch video that, unlike Trump, he is acutely aware of the injustice of a society in which some are able to hold enormous riches while others struggle to put food on the table.

"We have a society that's very unequal and it's really important for people to understand this society is connected," says Steyer in the video. "If this is a banana republic with a few very, very rich people and everybody else living in misery — that's a failure."

Another Democratic candidate at this point in the primary race — especially one with Steyer's outward pedigree and despite whatever bona fides or unique skills he brings to the table — was quick to draw ridicule and derision from progressive critics who said that his resources and the political machine he has built in recent years could be put to better use than by engaging in what is perceived as vanity project by many.

The Greenlining Institute's Bruce Mirken, writing on his personal Twitter account, put it this way: "It's pretty clear @TomSteyer is the answer to a question no one is asking."

As writer Anand Giridharadas suggested, the very rich — whatever their intentions — cannot save us:

According to The New York Times:

Mr. Steyer may be a questionable vessel for a populist message, as a billionaire financier in a party increasingly defined by concern for economic inequality, and as a 62-year-old white man courting an audience of liberals in a Democratic Party preoccupied with racial diversity and gender equality.
Yet his candidacy instantly transformed the financial shape of the race; he vowed to spend an enormous sum of his personal fortune on his campaign.
"Tom has committed to spending at least $100 million on this campaign," said Alberto Lammers, a spokesman for Mr. Steyer.
That figure exceeds the total fund-raising over the last three months by Joseph R. Biden Jr., Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris — combined. A $100 million budget would represent about half the cost of Hillary Clinton's 2016 primary campaign; most candidates who run for president spend a fraction of that sum.

While Steyer does not explicitly mention impeaching Trump in his campaign rollout, Salon's Sophia Tesfaye suggests his presidential bid could be enough to "shame" House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats into taking more forceful action on the issue.

"Steyer's public case for impeachment stalled out after he initially bowed out of the presidential race six months ago," writes Tesfaye, "but his group, Need to Impeach, recently released a $1 million ad buy for national networks in New Hampshire and Iowa, criticizing Democratic Party leaders for doing nothing."

Over at Splinter, journalist and commentator Libby Watson was having none of it in her column "Tom Steyer Thinks You're Stupid." Of course, Steyer has every right to run for president if he wants to, argues Watson, but that's not the point. She writes:

It's not that Tom Steyer is cheating. It's that his obscene wealth and the accordant ability to buy his way into the political system is exactly what's wrong with America. It's that the existence of Tom Steyer, billionaire, is cheating. And it's wrong.

Steyer's campaign launch video proved he does not understand this at all. Throughout, he railed against big money in politics and corporate interests swaying the political system in their favor — while running a campaign for president that's only made possible by the billions he amassed at his hedge fund. He doesn't understand that this isn't a good thing even if the billionaire with outsized influence happens to be a nice old California hippie type who just loves the environment and says the right things about the rest of the rich guys.

A quixotic billionaire campaign from the older brother from Succession might be better than, say, Exxon Mobil personified running (hey, corporations are people, right?). But Steyer doesn't realize that he does not have the moral authority to rail against the system that created him just because he is One of the Good Billionaires. The point of democracy is representation by the people, not representation by an uber-wealthy guy who promises real hard to figure out what real people need.

Steyer, however, made it clear he thinks he has a message worth sharing and — like other billionaire candidates before him — has the resources to fund his own campaign.

"Let's take our democracy back from corporations and special interests," Steyer added, "and give it to the people — the way it was always intended."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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