Debra J. Saunders

The New York Times reported this month that the Farallon Capital Management fund that Steyer managed until 2012 invested in Australian and Indonesian coal mines that increased their annual production by about 70 million tons -- "more than the amount of coal consumed annually by Britain." Others have reported on Farallon's stake in tar sands oil.

In June, Steyer wrote on the blog of NextGen Climate, which he founded, that though climate change had not always been on his radar, he came to believe he could no longer invest in fossil fuels. NextGen spokeswoman Suzanne Henkels extolled Steyer for stepping down from his business in 2012 and making "a commitment to dedicate himself full time to take action on what he feels is the defining issue for the next generation." He "has committed to giving away the bulk of his financial blessings to philanthropy and public interest causes," she said.

Another take would be that having amassed a fortune, Steyer can afford to moralize about how student endowments should invest. Now he's using that fortune to peddle influence.

Environmentalists were quick to forgive Steyer, who has pledged to spend $100 million this year to help elect like-minded Democrats. Activist Bill McKibben wrote, "If, as the Times puts it, Steyer is 'shadowed by coal,' so are the rest of us."

I am a global warming skeptic, which makes me a natural critic of Fossil Free UC's goals. Even so, I know that coal is a dirty fuel. So yes, I would expect a big-talking Democratic donor to refrain from lending tens of millions of dollars to coal companies likely to step up production in order to pay off loans. Though I agree with McKibben that everyone with standards is a hypocrite about something, I am "gobsmacked" -- as one Australian environmentalist put it -- at the cynicism of the Steyer disinvestment model.

Though Steyer pulled out of Farallon, his deals will be pumping out carbon for decades to come. He took 18 months to divest from fossil fuels; he was careful with his assets. Now Steyer and like-minded environmentalists are browbeating universities into forsaking the same opportunities for nice returns on investment -- for a gesture that won't do anything to reduce global warming.

Debra J. Saunders

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