SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- High-profile billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer held center stage at an event here, speaking about energy and politics to an audience of business power players. There were few surprises -- until the end.
In his final minutes, Steyer announced that he planned to launch an effort to quantify what inaction on climate change could cost the country. When a reporter afterward raced for Steyer, he begged off questions, waving for his aide, Kate Gordon.
Sitting in the near-empty auditorium after the event, Gordon explained the plan. She also revealed an important detail: The study was her idea, one she had long waited to put into action.
"I've wanted to do this for five years, and I never felt like I was in the right place to do it until working with Tom," Gordon said. Steyer's San Francisco-based nonprofit policy shop, Next Generation, offered the perfect perch to launch the effort, she said, because "we're not in Washington. We're not an environmental group. We're not identified as having a particular dog in the fight."
That study on climate inaction now is underway. Called Risky Business, it's headed by Steyer, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and George W. Bush administration Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
Gordon, 40, is the Risky Business executive director. She determines strategy; coordinates with the co-chairmen and economists; and talks to interested people with environmental groups, businesses and the media.
"It's what needs to happen in the climate debate right now," Gordon said. "What it really is is a way to shift the conversation to an entirely different way of talking about climate."
Those who know Gordon say it shows how, from behind the scenes, she's helping write the script on environmental action in the United States.
Risky Business is her latest effort directed at driving change. Before joining Steyer's nonprofit, she spent a decade crafting reports and analyses that several people said influenced state and federal policies, including the green jobs movement and elements of President Obama's stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Over the past 20 months, Gordon has guided Steyer as he's emerged as a political force. She said she's advised him on issues that include climate change, energy investment, renewable electricity and energy policy. For the first year of his advocacy, she prepared him for meetings, supplied briefs about issues he was advocating and crafted many of his speeches.
Now she's executing her goal of quantifying climate inaction with Steyer's backing and resources. The magazine Campaigns & Elections in November included Gordon on its list of the 50 influencers to watch ahead of the 2014 election cycle, citing her role in the Risky Business study on climate change costs.
"She understands how the game is played, how power is exerted and how to pull the right levers," said Adam Browning, co-founder of advocacy group Vote Solar and an activist who has worked with Gordon on green issues.
"Not everybody knows how to put together a campaign that succeeds," he added. "It's actually a rarer skill than you might think. She knows how to do it."
'This is a massive goal'
The aim of the Risky Business climate study is to get people thinking about the issue in a different way, Gordon said during an interview in Next Generation's San Francisco office, which features faux wood floors and a view of the Transamerica building.
A big challenge in dealing with climate change, she said, is that people can feel it's so overwhelming, their actions won't make a difference. She wants to move the conversation past resignation to optimism.
"My biggest goal is ... to make this something people care about," Gordon said, but to also make them "want to take action and be really at the forefront and be leaders on figuring out kind of a new way of doing business and moving away from fossil fuels.
"It will not just take us. This is a massive goal," she added. "It will take everybody working together."
Gordon understands good policy and knows the political routes to achieving it, said Matt James, executive director at Next Generation and co-founder of the group along with Steyer and his brother Jim Steyer.
"She's very pragmatic and understands how all of that is knitted together, and not everybody does," James said.
Gordon presented the Risky Business study idea to him and then to Tom Steyer, who, James said, "got it right away."
Gordon helped recruit the effort's new Risk Committee, which features several well-known names. There are three people from former President Clinton's Cabinet: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. Two Republicans are on board: former Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine and Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz. Others on the panel are Alfred Sommer of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Gregory Page, former CEO and current chairman of the board of Cargill Inc.
One of the goals was "bringing in unlikely voices," James said.
"Kate has really driven that project and has thought through who should be involved, how we involve them, how we create a broader platform to talk about climate than frankly just sort of the typical actors that have been out there," James said. "That's a big part of what Tom wants to accomplish. He knows that we're not going to get there unless we bring business along."
Picking the right messengers
The idea of quantifying the costs of ignoring climate change isn't new, said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a think tank that has advised the Obama administration. Gordon was a vice president at CAP until 2012 and worked with Weiss.
In fact, Weiss said, he was at a February 2012 meeting with the then-head of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, when there was talk of doing an analysis like the one from British economist Nicholas Stern. Completed for the British government in 2006, the Stern Review looked at how warming would affect the global economy.
The belief voiced at the meeting with Krueger and others, Weiss said, was that in the U.S. a similar study would be discredited if it came from the Obama administration.
Gordon understands that it's not just the message that matters in politics, he said, but ensuring that it comes from the right messengers. Having Paulson as part of Risky Business is "critical to increasing the credibility," Weiss said.
Gordon and Next Generation "deserve great credit for making this idea into a reality, and recruiting a board/oversight committee of great economic renown who will be forceful, credible and effective messengers," Weiss said in an email.
The Risky Business report, if completed before the 2014 elections, "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," Weiss said.
One critic, however, said he doubted that the Risky Business panel would be viewed as impartial. Many on it support policies that would reduce fossil fuel use, said Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, a nonprofit focused on free-market advocacy. He is a former Koch Industries lobbyist.
"I don't see anyone on the list who I would see as rounding out the opinions about the need for action on climate change," Pyle said. To be truly comprehensive, he added, the report would also need to look at the economic costs of ramping down fossil fuels.
Pyle also questioned Gordon's assessment that running the study out of Steyer's nonprofit is more advantageous than if she had launched it when she worked at the Center for American Progress.
"They're virtually indistinguishable," Pyle said of Steyer and CAP. "Clearly, Tom Steyer has made the latter part of his career making this issue the focus of his political activity. ... He has been very one-sided in terms of his politics in that regard."
CAP founder John Podesta now is a White House adviser, Pyle said, and Steyer "may have a little bit more independence, but he certainly is in lock step with what I would call the harder elements of the left on this issue."
Pyle said he does not know Gordon and was speaking about the Risky Business strategy but not her personally.
Influencing Obama's first legislation
Gordon is poised for potential success with Risky Business, but her efforts should be seen as part of a push that has spanned generations, a former colleague said.
"She has put in the time and she has built the base of personal relationships and she's positioned herself to be incredibly impactful right now in the moment we're in," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at CAP. "It's not that other people failed and now she's going to come along with some special sauce or some secret formula. Rather she's done the work to be in the right place with a very relevant tool set."
Gordon came to activism after growing up in two economic worlds. After her parents divorced, she lived part time with her father, a Stanford University law professor, in Palo Alto, Calif., and part with her mother, an advocate for low-income seniors and people who were homeless in the east side of Madison, Wis.
After her undergraduate degree, she worked as a tenant organizer in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, motivated by "a general sense of economic injustice." She went to law school and earned a joint master's degree in city planning. Three years later, she took a job at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, known as COWS, a think tank based at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. That introduced her to the energy world.
Joel Rogers, director of COWS, in cooperation with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for America's Future, had just launched the Apollo Alliance. That coalition united business, labor, environment and community groups that advocated for green energy.
"He needed someone to start thinking about clean energy as an economic development driver, so he threw me at it," Gordon said. "It was a real trial by fire."
Gordon was at Apollo when the alliance made its push for green jobs. She came at the issue first from an economic versus an environmental viewpoint, said Hendricks, a past executive director at Apollo.
"There are probably a half a dozen people who all deserve a big piece of the credit" for advancing green jobs, Hendricks said. "She's certainly one of them."
In 2009 Gordon was co-director at Apollo when the organization published its 10-point "Apollo Economic Recovery Act," which it argued should be part of President Obama's first legislative measure. Elements of it were nearly identical to components that later appeared in the stimulus package, Gordon said. That led some conservatives to assert that Apollo crafted the legislation.
Radio host Glenn Beck on his Aug. 24, 2009, show said the Apollo Alliance "wrote the bill," according to an online transcript on his website. He did not cite Gordon by name.
Asked whether she penned parts of the stimulus bill, Gordon said that "there are pieces of that [Apollo plan], in particular around clean energy manufacturing, that you can see in the manufacturing tax credits that were passed." There also were pieces that were in the energy efficiency block grants program, she said.
"Many, many people were involved, but we certainly, I think, had an influence," Gordon added.
Gordon while detailing her work history commented that she'd had good timing, landing in the right spots as key events were underway. "I've been lucky in all these transitions," she said.
Then, as if she'd caught herself, she added that Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg -- who in her book "Lean In" wrote about women and business success -- "says I shouldn't say that."
Asked whether men have gotten credit for her work, Gordon said that "a lot of what I do is sort of helping the movement generally." But she added that she's long been a woman in environments dominated by men.
"I work with energy, and I work with labor, and I work on manufacturing," she said. "I'm almost always the only woman in the room. When I was a CAP, every single senior member of my team was a man."
There have been times in her career when she was asked to take notes, she said, because she had "the best handwriting."
"That kind of thing happens all the time," she said, adding that she wouldn't let it go unnoticed. "You just have to get to a place where you call it out for what it is. ... It's certainly been an issue in my career, no question."
Shaping Next Generation's 'voice'
Gordon met Steyer in 2011 while she was working as vice president in charge of the energy program at CAP. Later that year, Gordon wrote an opinion piece for him and CAP founder Podesta that ran in The Wall Street Journal in January 2012, urging the need for investments in clean energy. The two were involved in crafting the final version, she said.
A short time later, Gordon learned that Steyer was looking for a new director for Next Generation and let it be known she'd be interested. She was hired and moved there in June 2012, without taking a day off between the two jobs.
A big part of her job at the nonprofit in the first year was preparing Steyer for events and guiding him in his advocacy. By default, that has made her other work there less noticeable, she said.
"He has a very important voice in the movement," Gordon said, "but you could certainly argue that it puts me in the background."
Steyer, in an email, called Gordon "a trusted policy adviser and key member of the Next Generation team."
"Her guidance and leadership continues to be instrumental to our efforts to combat climate change as we work to identify strategies to deploy clean, advanced energy technologies," Steyer said. "Her leadership in launching Risky Business ... is a key example of Kate's drive to seek innovative solutions."
Among her roles at Next Generation, Gordon said, is communicating the group's ideas. Steyer, his brother and James started the group in 2011 because they believed "that strategic communications voice was missing from California," Gordon said.
"I know how to talk about these issues in a way that speaks to people beyond the environmental community," Gordon said. "I'm a good translator of policy issues and vision and values to a much broader group of people.
"I'm a big-picture person," she added. "I care a lot about setting an agenda, having a big vision on issues."
Gordon writes a blog sent to about 4,000 subscribers, a combination of Capitol Hill staffers, California Legislature aides, reporters and people with advocacy groups. A lot of people read her emailed "Cliffnotes," she said.
"I get approached at parties by people in different sectors who read them," Gordon said. "What people always say is that I have a unique way of telling these issues that isn't just confined to a small insider group."
Burning midnight oil
At Next Generation, Gordon also advocates on climate on many fronts. She's worked on the implementation of Proposition 39, a 2012 California ballot measure that Steyer largely funded. It changed how multistate businesses are taxed over five years and will funnel an estimated $2.75 billion in new revenues to energy efficiency measures. She helped shape legislation governing how the money will be spent and last month was named to a citizen's committee that will vet the allocations (Greenwire, Jan. 17).
In addition, she's now part of a group of advocates conferring on ways California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia will move forward together on actions to combat climate change. The leaders of those states and the Canadian province in October signed an agreement to join efforts. There is hope that the alliance could influence federal action (ClimateWire, Oct. 29, 2013).
Acting as a consultant outside her Next Generation post, she'll also be advising Steyer on strategies as he pushes to increase the California tax levied on oil companies for each barrel extracted in the state. His political action committee NextGen Climate Action last month launched a statewide campaign to advocate for the change.
Gordon similarly has been working with Steyer on his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. She consults with his political action committee, she said, weighing in with research and background and offering advice.
The myriad goals have Gordon frequently traveling from coast to coast and conferring with allies or writing blogs late at night. A mother of two young children, she averages about 6½ hours of sleep a night.
"I do a lot of work between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m.," Gordon said.
If Gordon has detractors on these issues, they aren't eager to speak out about her specifically. There are those, however, who questioned the wisdom of the choices Steyer and his advisers have made on Keystone XL and the California tax push.
"Mr. Steyer has made his antipathy toward petroleum energy well-known," said Tupper Hull, spokesman for trade group Western States Petroleum Association. "He is opposed to importing Canada's oil through the Keystone XL pipeline, he supports raising taxes on domestic energy production in California and he opposes well completion technologies like hydraulic fracturing.
"One has to wonder where Mr. Steyer believes Californians should get their essential gasoline and diesel supplies if he is successful in closing off affordable domestic supplies," Hull added.
Others said Gordon has offered sage advice on a number of energy issues and is effective in securing change.
"She has background, experience, relationships, credibility, brains and a strategic perspective," said Susan Frank, who has worked with Gordon on protecting California's climate policies and advancing similar ones in the region. Frank has several posts including director of the California Business Alliance for a Green Economy. "All of those things together make her a really good person to have in the room when you're talking about climate policy."
In terms of 2014, Frank said, "because Steyer is so engaged in elections and is spending money on campaigns and we know Kate is a key adviser if not the key adviser, we know she is important to that election."