On Wednesday, current Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, and top White House advisers John Podesta and Valerie Jarrett met with Steyer and others behind the "Risky Business" report, a study that seeks to convince the business world of climate risks.
In a speech to University of California graduates this month, Obama gave an apparent (albeit cryptic) shout-out to a far more aggressive set of activists who urge divestment from fossil-fuel stocks, calling on students to "divest from what harms."
To be sure, it's not a cohesive movement. (For instance, Paulson thinks the Keystone pipeline should be built—he doesn't like oil sands but thinks they'll get to market anyway, he told PBS on Wednesday.)
Some activists organize shareholders to use their clout pushing companies to advocate for strong climate policies, and pushing carbon-heavy industries to transform their business into something more climate-friendly.
A related effort seeks to pressure securities regulators into requiring companies to account for what climate change could mean for their bottom line.
Others, including the prominent activist Bill McKibben and his group 350.org, take a very different and far more hardcore approach: pressuring universities, city governments, and other shareholders to dump their fossil-fuel holdings altogether, rather than engage with the companies. Activists have won commitments—or at least recommendations to investment managers—from about two dozen cities, roughly a dozen higher-education institutions, and others.
Jamie Henn, the strategy director for 350.org, said shareholder advocacy has "failed to deliver the type of fundamental changes that are needed in these companies," and that outright divestment is a more powerful tool.
But Michael Lynch, president of the consulting firm Strategic Energy & Economic Research, predicted the divestment push will yield limited returns. "There will always be people who say this stock is undervalued and will buy the stock, and that will offset the small portion of people who will not hold it in their portfolio," he said.
What all wings of this movement share an interest in deploying, one way or another, are financial levers and pressure to force changes in corporate behavior.
Both Rubin and Paulson, in comments this week, said the Securities and Exchange Commission should be requiring public companies to reveal the risks they face from climate change in filings with the regulators. Advocates say the SEC's climate-disclosure program has been toothless thus far.
"Investors, I think, need to demand that businesses make disclosures ... about the risks," Paulson told Bloomberg News. Among those risks, he said, are "stranded assets."
"Stranded assets" is increasingly part of the lexicon of climate activism. The term refers to investments in reserves or other assets that are costly to develop (think deepwater and the Arctic) or very carbon-heavy (think oil sands or coal plants) and could turn into big losers in a world that finally takes strong steps to limit emissions.