Steyer joins with Bloomberg, Paulson in ‘Risky Business’ alliance

Source: Elana Schor, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Wealthy climate activist Tom Steyer, best known for his campaign-trail fight against the Keystone XL oil pipeline, today took a bipartisan turn in a new alliance with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former GOP Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that focuses on the economic risks of climate change.

The trio’s project, dubbed “Risky Business,” aims to harness the data-driven expertise of industries that are poised to take a financial hit from — and, in some cases, already are planning for — unchecked global warming. Yet whether the heavy hitters attached to the new study can make a dent in Washington’s current climate policy impasse, and whether Steyer’s affinity for political combat over energy issues steals attention from the effort, remains unclear.

Risky Business’ executive director, Kate Gordon, said in an interview that organizers “in some ways designed” the partnership to avoid the “partisan debate about whether the science is real” and what legislative remedy is best suited to mitigate the changing climate.

In that vein, the project’s three high-profile co-chairmen plan to appoint a panel of outside experts to synthesize existing work on climate risks with new research, culminating in a report scheduled for release next summer. Before that study is done, however, the co-chairmen and project staff also plan to engage what Gordon described as “high-level influencers” in the business world about planning for and quantifying the dangerous consequences of rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we have a risk committee tell us what kind of risk we’re facing as a country, what would they say? We designed it very much to appeal to and be understandable to folks with a business background, a financial-sector background, and to be extremely nonpartisan. If you get into other parts of the debate, you can’t have a conversation.”

Steyer is fast becoming a veteran of the Washington climate wars, courtesy of his NextGen political action committee, which has invested a half-million dollars to support Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s Virginia gubernatorial run and made the $5.3 billion KXL pipeline into a flash point during Massachusetts’ Senate special election earlier this year (E&E Daily, Sept. 10). His alliance with Bloomberg and Paulson is under the aegis of his Next Generation nonprofit group, which focuses on policy and counts Gordon as a vice president.

Yet the background of Risky Business’ website, a photo of the devastated New Jersey shore after Superstorm Sandy last year, suggests that the nonpartisan project may become embroiled in the increasingly political debate over the connection between climate change and extreme weather events.

An industry-aligned source off Capitol Hill working on energy issues, speaking candidly on condition of anonymity, warned that the trio’s invocation of natural disasters as emblems of climate risk “won’t work long-term and will only further drive down their already eroded credibility with the public. It’s rather simple: There is a credibility gap with the public on climate and energy issues. That is why so few people take these issues beyond partisan politics.”

Democratic backers of climate action took heat from the Union of Concerned Scientists in May after an Oklahoma tornado inspired two to suggest a direct link between climate change and specific weather events. Most scientists project that although man-made emissions are poised to increase the overall frequency of extreme weather, tying individual events to climate change is scientifically difficult — with the possible exception of heat waves and droughts (E&E Daily, May 24).

Gordon vowed that the third-party researchers conducting the study for Steyer, Bloomberg and Paulson would work independently of each man’s operations, political and otherwise. “We’re absolutely not going to allow personal biases and considerations to get in the way of the research,” she said. “That means we may not like some of the things we find.”

Project organizers plan to release the names of participants in the study, first reported last month by The New Yorker, in the coming weeks after all risk committee members are named, Gordon said.