Did a hedge fund billionaire just call for mass civil disobedience over climate change?

Tom Steyer’s new occupation.
Tom Steyer’s new occupation.
Image: Bullit Marquez/AP
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San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer has emerged as the antithesis to the Koch brothers, the conservative American industrialists who have bankrolled the Tea Party and other right-wing causes. Steyer has financed ballot initiatives, non-profits and think tanks to promote renewable energy, climate-change activism, and to derail the Keystone XL pipeline. Now he appears to be taking it to the streets.

In a blog post today to mark the 50th anniversary of the black civil-rights movement’s March on Washington, Steyer riffs on whether the time is right for non-violent civil disobedience to protest the continued inaction on climate change as the effects of global warming accelerate.

“Americans are not willing to put up with denial any longer. Opinions are shifting—hard and fast,” Steyer writes, citing a poll that found 13% of Americans would commit civil disobedience to put pressure on politicians over climate change. “People understand the risks as they begin to see and feel the impacts, and are tired of the dysfunction that is preventing change. All that these individuals need is a clear, direct action to take.”

Steyer cites Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In the letter, King laid out his principles for protest in the face of unjust laws and police brutality—themes that would echo in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC months later.

“When you consider the impact climate change will have on our collective future, it is instructive to remember what Martin Luther King had to say about the power of non-violent civil disobedience in that letter,” Steyer writes. “ Dr. King’s key insight is not just that outright oppressors never give up their advantages willingly, but also that moderates never advocate any direct, non-violent, attack on the status quo because they are actually satisfied with it.”

“For the sake of our own struggle, this point is worth keeping in mind,” he adds. “Because of self-interest, the dirty energy industry will always engage in fierce, intense opposition.  But what about the moderates of our era?  Are they still satisfied with the status quo? I think not.”

Steyer’s post stops just barely short of calling outright for mass civil disobedience over climate change. He wouldn’t be the first to do so—Bill McKibben’s has been leading the charge on that front—but it marks another evolution of the once media-shy founder of Farallon Capital Management (he retired in 2012) into a vocal critic of the fossil-fuel industry and its political supporters.

A major donor to Democratic candidates, Steyer spoke at the 2012 Democratic Convention. But unlike the secretive Koch brothers, whom Steyer defeated in a 2010 ballot battle over California’s landmark global warming law, he seems increasingly comfortable in the limelight.

“Thomas Jefferson thought that 15% of the general population was the number needed for accomplishing significant transformation,” Steyer concludes in his blog post. “If he was correct, this may represent a tipping point.  We may be on the precipice of major change. Let’s hope we are.”