Power Players

Billionaire Tom Steyer tells fellow 2020 presidential candidates to fly commercial like him to help the environment

Democratic 2020 presidential hopeful and billionaire activist Tom Steyer (L) gestures at fair visitors at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa on August 11, 2019
Alex Edelman | AFP | Getty Images

Tom Steyer can certainly afford to fly private. The hedge fund manager and environmental activist is also a self-made billionaire with a net worth of $1.6 billion, according to Forbes.

But Democratic candidate Steyer is also an outspoken supporter of environmental issues who has made tackling climate change a key component of his 2020 presidential campaign and says flying private sends the wrong message.

"I don't fly private. I hope nobody else running for the Democratic nomination will choose to fly private," Steyer said in a CNN town hall interview on Sunday, challenging his fellow Democratic candidates to only take commercial flights as they criss-cross the country in the lead-up to the Democratic presidential primaries.

Steyer added that he and his peers "have to 'walk the walk'" on environmental issues.

For Steyer, flying commercial — and flying coach at that — is nothing new, as a 2011 Forbes profile noted that Steyer "usually" flies economy.

Steyer's challenge to his Democratic rivals comes after some of them have already received criticism for spending large sums of campaign money on private jet travel. Former vice president Joe Biden's campaign spent almost $924,000 on private jet travel in the third quarter of 2019, compared to $443,000 spent on private planes during the same period by South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg's campaign, $360,000 spent by Sen. Bernie Sanders and $133,000 spent by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, CNBC reported in October. 

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While candidates can save time by traveling via a private jet, as opposed to taking commercial flights, critics have pointed out the exorbitant cost to the campaigns that comes with private jet travel, as well as the increased environmental footprint. (Some candidates have also argued that their campaigns work to offset carbon emissions from travel, including by sending money to carbon offset providers and funding renewable energy projects.)

In addition to flying economy, Steyer drives a 2016 Chevrolet Volt, a hybrid gas and electric vehicle, which starts at just $33,520.

Steyer called climate change his "No. 1 priority" in the same CNN town hall interview, and he promised to declare a national emergency and use the emergency powers of the presidency to change American climate policy if he is elected to the White House.

Steyer even promised to ask Congress to pass "some version of the Green New Deal," the progressive legislative proposal aimed at combating climate change that was introduced by lawmakers such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in February. (In addition to Steyer, at least a dozen other Democratic challengers also support passing the Green New Deal, according to The Washington Post.)

Steyer is considered a longshot to win the Democratic nomination for president, polling at just 1% nationally, according to a November Monmouth University poll.

Steyer entered the presidential race in July 2019 and committed to spending $100 million of his own money on his candidacy. The billionaire is the former head of the investment fund Farallon Capital, which he founded in 1986 with $9 million in investments and he grew the fund to reach $36 billion of assets under management at its peak.

Steyer left his role at the firm in 2012 to focus on philanthropy, including signing onto The Giving Pledge in 2010, joining billionaires like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in pledging to give away the bulk of their fortunes to charity.

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