“There are not many donors who have gone out there and been successful in the political world,” Lehane said.
Steyer, who made his initial fortune engaging in arbitrage, has employed unconventional tactics at times to achieve his goals. In 2010 he teamed up with former Reagan secretary of state George P. Shultz to defeat a proposition financed by Texas oil firms to reverse California’s law capping greenhouse gas emissions. The two men learned a month before the election that they were assured of victory. But rather than save the $10 million they still had on handfor the campaign, Steyer and Shultz decided to spend it so they could win by an even larger margin.
“We didn’t just want to beat it, we wanted to beat it big time,” Shultz said in an interview.
In 2012, Steyer targeted a handful of companies exempted from California taxes, spending $32 million on a ballot initiative toclose that loophole and funnel the money to energy efficiency and education initiatives. He convinced the firms directly affected by the change — General Motors, Kimberly-Clark, Chrysler, International Paper and Procter & Gamble — that their image would suffer if they fought it.
“It just blew me away that he was able to persuade these CEOs of major corporations to say, ‘Guys, we’re going to back away from this,’ ” said Art Pulaski, who heads the California Labor Federation.
Not all Californians are as pleased with Steyer’s efforts, even if they’re impressed by his record. Gino DiCaro, spokesman for the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, said Steyer’s push to wean the state off fossil fuels has raised the cost of manufacturing for its member companies.
“Some of the stuff he’s done doesn’t really take into account the challenges our industry has out here in terms of competing and growing,” DiCaro said. “He hasn’t made it easy on us.”
In the past Steyer had dabbled in politics while simultaneously heading a $20 billion hedge fund. But he stepped down from Farallon Capital at the end of 2012, and he is devoting himself primarily to the Center for the Next Generation — the nonprofit organization that he and his brother Jim established.
Steyer is convinced that global greenhouse gas emissions will have to begin to fall within the next few years or the world will suffer catastrophic consequences. Butwhen he talks to many in his circle — including business leaders and prominent politicians — he finds them oblivious to what he sees as a monumental threat.
“I feel as if people have a completely different time frame than I do,” he said, adding that while U.S. leadership is essential in curbing the world’s carbon output, “We’re not going to lead the world on this unless the American people understand why we’re doing this. . . . Have the American people declared war on carbon? No . . . way.”
Steyer has. On Sunday he returned to Washington to speak at a climate rally urging Obama to block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries. He is preparing to launch a report that will quantify how much inaction on climate change will cost the United States, akin to the 2006 report by Sir Nicholas Stern that estimated climate effects ranging from extreme weather to hotter temperatures could sap between 5 and 20 percent from the world’s future annual economic output.
And Steyer is trying to figure out who can communicate this message in a way that Americans will trust, so they don’t see him and others as people straight out of a zombie movie.
“When you talk about global warming, you’ve lost 90 percent of the public unless you make it real to them,” he said.
Steyer may face long odds, but he seems prepared to approach the situation with a sense of humor. He dons Scottish ties every day — although not those bearing the tartan of his own clan, Murray, because he said it was too ugly. “You gotta dress up for a fight,” he said.
Although he and his college-age daughter braved freezing temperatures at Sunday’s climate rally in Washington, he’s not a masochist. While marching with his daughter and her classmates en route to the White House, he declared, “I look forward to buying everyone a warm drink at the Willard [Hotel]” — proof that perhaps he could fit neatly into the Washington establishment after all.
Alice R. Crites and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.