We've all heard of the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson and George Soros, billionaires who have funneled millions of dollars into political campaigns, PACs and think tanks. And we've all heard of the Citizen's United decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates of cash into political campaigns around the country.
But have you heard of Tom Steyer?
He's a liberal billionaire who recently announced he was hoping to spend $100 million -- $50 million from his personal fortune and $50 million from other donors -- to make climate change a top-tier issue in the 2014 election. He is also an outspoken critic of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Steyer, a former hedge fund manager (Farallon Capital Management), formed NextGen Climate Action to push his pet cause, but this is not his first toe in the water.
He spent millions on the 2013 Massachusetts Senate and Virginia governor's races, helping Democrats Ed Markey and Terry McAuliffe prevail.
The New York Times noted that Steyer's ambitious plan makes NextGen "among the largest outside groups in the country, similar in scale to the conservative political network overseen by Charles and David Koch."
Steyer said he is going after politicians who don't do enough about climate change.
Why is Steyer so pumped to confront the climate-change deniers and fossil-fuel apologists?
"We don't have time," he told Joe Hagan for Men's Journal. "This is an urgent issue. If we produce this stuff in Canada, it's a 50-year supply, and I guarantee you they'll find more. If we do nothing, we're dead! We're toast!"
And he is enlisting others in his campaign.
"In early February, Mr. Steyer gathered two dozen of the country's leading liberal donors and environmental philanthropists to his 1,800-acre ranch in Pescadero, Calif. ..." noted the Times.
"Unlike some on the left, Mr. Steyer has embraced the political toolbox that was opened to wealthy donors and other interests in the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which made it easier for businesses, unions and rich individuals to pour unlimited money into elections," the Times' piece continued.
Steyer told the Times Citizens United needs to be overturned somehow, but until then, "We've accepted the world as it is."
Not everybody is happy with Steyer and others like him.
"A small number of the richest individuals in America are attempting to use their enormous wealth to purchase government decisions to advance their own personal interests," Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, told the New York Times. "This is about as far away as we can get from 'representative government.'"
Is taking advantage of what many Americans believe was an outrageously flawed decision by the Supreme Court ethical for many of us on the left.
Vermont's resident environmental sage, Bill McKibben, seems OK with Steyer's plan. McKibben told Men's Journal that Steyer has "made it very clear to the political class that you don't get to screw the planet and get away with it scot-free. There's a price to be paid there."
And then there is Steyer's road to riches, which he admitted to Men's Journal was not the typical avenue ending with environmental activism. His hedge fund did what hedge funds do -- identifying flagging or collapsed companies, making sophisticated bets on them, and often conducting ruthless campaigns, legal and corporate, to force their value up and reap a massive return, wrote Hagan. And as early as 2000, "Steyer's fund had invested heavily in the energy companies developing the Canadian oil sands -- the very companies he is now fighting."
But before he turned 40, Steyer had an epiphany of sorts, about what kind of world he would be leaving behind. While Steyer retains a limited partnership at Farallon, he told Men's Journal he has segregated his own money into a separate fund that is free of "ecologically unsound investments."
Steyer has commissioned what is called "The Risky Business" report, which is intended to detail the economic risk the United States faces from the impacts of climate change.
The report is expected to be issued prior to the 2014 elections, and "could provide supporters of action on climate change with a very strong shield to argue that inaction on climate change will significantly harm the economy," Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, told Environment & Energy Publishing.
"He's a logical guy, and logic would dictate that we could take action in the face of a serious crisis," McKibben told Men's Journal. "I think he comes from a world of business where people do act on things. And if they don't, they go out of business. His sense is that we may well be going out of business."
Until Citizens United is overturned, either by Congressional action or a Constitutional amendment, we at the Reformer will have to reluctantly side with the money men who bankroll activism that we believe in. It's obvious those on the right have no qualms about using Citizens United to subvert the well being of Americans that don't have millions of dollars to make their voices heard in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps what we can learn from people like Steyer is sometimes you have to get dirty to fight back. We eagerly await the results of his Risky Business report, and maybe it will make a difference in 2014, and into the future, as global climate change is recognized by the decision makers as the serious threat 97 percent of climate scientists have said it is.