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Economy

Tom Steyer Is Baffled By Warren Buffett’s Oil Bets

“In the case of fossil fuels, he doesn’t seem to recognize how quickly our ability to develop and deploy clean energy is growing — and how cheap that energy is becoming.”

Tom Steyer and Warren Buffett.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

If you’re looking for a relatively optimistic read on the fight against climate change, Tom Steyer’s new book is out today. Called Cheaper, Better Faster: How We’ll Win the Climate War, it dives into the billionaire’s perspective on the state of the climate crisis and the clean energy solutions helping the world decarbonize. Steyer’s perspective is informed by the many hats he wears — investor, philanthropist, long shot 2020 presidential candidate, Yale man, and co-founder of the investment firm Galvanize Climate Solutions.

I chatted with Steyer a few weeks ago about his book, his guiding investment principles, and how and why people become environmentalists. Here are three things I found noteworthy:

1. Steyer thinks Warren Buffett is making a bad bet.

While Steyer admits that “no one’s ever gotten rich betting against Warren Buffett,” he believes the billionaire investor has got it wrong when it comes to oil and gas investments. Buffett’s firm, Berkshire Hathaway, has a 28% stake in Occidental Petroleum and a nearly 7% stake in Chevron.

“Of the 8 billion people alive today, it’s possible that no one is better than Warren at predicting the future of commercial activity,” Steyer writes in his book. “But in the case of fossil fuels, he doesn’t seem to recognize how quickly our ability to develop and deploy clean energy is growing — and how cheap that energy is becoming.”

“He has generally been a very high minded, good guy,” Steyer told me. “[But] I look at these investments, and I don’t understand how those reserves can get developed without pushing us to a place from a climate standpoint that is unsupportable ... Every scenario like that puts us in a climate bind.”

Steyer ultimately likens investing in fossil fuels to betting on whale oil, a fuel that powered lamps in the 18th and 19th centuries. “We should not be rooting to keep the whale blubber business going and spending a lot of American tax dollars to support whale blubber. Because it turns out, that’s not the future. It’s really important for America that we be at the forefront of economic change.”

2. Galvanize Climate Solutions is more than a VC firm.

Steyer co-founded the climate investment firm Galvanize in 2021 with fellow investor Katie Hall. Last September, the firm announced that it had raised over $1 billion for its first fund, which targets investments in early to growth stage climate companies “that can drive meaningful decarbonization over the next decade,” according to Saloni Multani, co-head of the fund.

What helps set the firm apart is its variety of funding strategies. It not only makes venture capital investments in early stage companies, but growth equity investments to help companies reach scale, public equity investments (that is, purchasing stock) in publicly traded corporations, and even real estate investments. Last month Galvanize purchased its first building, an industrial facility in the Baltimore-Washington corridor that the firm aims to decarbonize via rooftop solar, mechanical upgrades, and other energy efficiency measures. The firm also plans to invest in and decarbonize apartment buildings, student housing, and storage facilities.

“We want to buy buildings and make them net zero and prove you can make more money doing it. We want to be in the early stage companies that are leading the tech revolutions. We want to actually be a partner in the public domain, owning stock and partnering with the corporate leaders, the CEO, the C suite,” Steyer told me. “So it’s an actual activist strategy, but as partners to the organizations that are trying to lead the revolution, not as opponents.”

3. The path to sustainability runs through economic self interest.

When I asked Steyer to what degree he’s been able to mobilize his friends and fellow billionaires to get onboard with the climate cause, he didn’t exactly say it’s been a rousing success. Instead, he emphasized that people end up making sustainable choices for a variety of reasons – and that it often starts with economic practicalities rather than climate consciousness.

“A lot of people think that you are an environmentalist, and then you put solar on your roof. But actually, I think you put solar on your roof, and then you become an environmentalist,” Steyer said. “I think getting in the game actually changes people’s attitudes.”

This ladders up to statewide politics around renewables as well, he said. “So if you think about a state where the elected officials have been very outspoken against renewables and climate response, it would be Texas. But if you look at Texas, they’ve tripled the amount of solar they have over the last three years. It’s expected to go up 35% more this year. They’re by far the biggest wind generator in the country. They’re not being nice. It’s a good deal.”

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Katie Brigham profile image

Katie Brigham

Katie is a staff writer for Heatmap covering climate tech. Based out of the Bay Area, she formerly worked as a reporter and producer for CNBC.com.

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