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Tom Steyer talks climate change and foreign policy on tour of Iowa

A sticker on Tom Steyer's bus reads, "Climate is my number one priority." At every campaign stop he tells Iowans no other candidate is willing to make this claim.

Aboard the bus on Friday morning between stops on a five-day bus tour through Iowa, Steyer talked about his decision to launch his campaign late in the summer because no other candidate on the early debate stage was "telling the truth" about climate.

He took a shot at former presidential hopeful Jay Inslee. "Jay Inslee wasn't going anywhere," Steyer said about the Washington governor who made climate change the top issue of his short-lived campaign. "No one was listening to him."

And he criticized Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders' Green New Deal climate plan as unrealistic, arguing that neither Congress nor the Democratic Party will support it. 

"I know that Bernie has a big climate plan," Steyer told reporters. "I also know that it is not his top priority."

The man who made his billions while at the helm of investment firm Farallon Capital Management, a firm that bankrolled coal-related projects around the world, said that for more than 12 years, climate change has been his top concern.

Speaking exclusively with CBS News aboard the bus between Sheldon and Spirit Lake, Iowa, Steyer said his hedge fund's investments in fossil fuels were "a mistake."

"There were definitely mistakes made," Steyer said when asked if he regretted the fossil-fuel investments. "If I knew then what I know now, would I have made them? No. But I didn't know then what I know now. And when I learned it, I acted on it."

Steyer wants Americans to come to the same conclusion he has about the unintended consequences of relying on a fossil-fuel economy.

"This is still a fossil-fuel-driven economy," Steyer said, adding, "we need to make a change." He wishes he had "figured it out sooner."

Steyer said the U.S. has to lead the world in tackling climate change and help other countries around the world develop with clean energy. He sees America's relationship with China as the most important one going forward.

"That is going to be the country which we need to work most closely with and with whom we don't agree about some serious things and have some real differences with."

Among the "important differences" Steyer said the U.S. has with the leaders of China are "democracy in Hong Kong," and their treatment of minorities.

According to the United Nations, more than one million Chinese Uighur Muslims are being detained in government internment camps. Chinese authorities describe these camps as "re-education" facilities meant to fight extremism in the region.

Steyer noted that the U.S. has not unilaterally placed sanctions on other countries for their internal policies "unless we felt that there was genocide at risk." He said there's no question that Uighur Muslims are being mistreated by the Chinese but added "that is not a genocide" and added that "genocide is the attempt to wipe people out."

He believes that the U.S. can't be the world's policeman and shouldn't unilaterally confront China because it's "behaving inappropriately." Instead, he thinks that the U.S. should rely on diplomacy and work in concert with traditional coalitions to "move towards a more stable relationship."

In a week that has been dominated by foreign policy concerns, after a U.S. airstrike in Iraq killed Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, Steyer said his experience traveling the world has prepared him to deal with international issues if he's the next commander-in-chief.

Foreign policy, Steyer said, is a question of temperament and how one behaves under duress. He argued that he has a "clear sense" what America's role in the world should be and attacked President Trump's "America-first" agenda as "pretty much textbook 'what not to do.'"

In Spirit Lake on Friday, Steyer told a crowd of roughly 30 caucus goers that Mr. Trump's decision to take down a top Iranian military leader has made Americans "less safe."

He said Mr. Trump's strategy of confrontation and escalation has put America "in a position of much less safety" and criticized the administration's decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear agreement as having led to the current situation.

Steyer is currently ramping up his operation in Iowa and claims there's momentum behind his campaign. The size of his team has increased in Iowa, with 70 staffers on the ground and 15 field offices across the state. He has not yet qualified for the January debate, which will be co-hosted by the Des Moines Register and CNN in Des Moines in mid-January.

On Friday, however, Steyer reached the 225,000 donor threshold set by the Democratic National Committee, which gets him part of the way to the debate stage. For now, he's still two qualifying polls shy of meeting that bar.

Some caucus goers in Iowa are attracted to Steyer's message around climate change. They recognize him from the barrage of television ads he has deployed on the airwaves and remember that he was pushing for impeachment of Mr. Trump back in 2017.

In Onawa, Iowa, a small town of roughly 3,000 residents where Steyer made a stop on Thursday afternoon, Iowan Debby Stanton told CBS News she was "very impressed" with Steyer and "likes what he's saying." "Hopefully, he can continue to get more support and be able to go one on one with President Trump," she said.

On the trail, Steyer has been hammering home the message that he's the "unconventional" politician who can take on Mr. Trump in the general election. He reminds caucus goers that then-candidate Trump beat someone he describes as "the most prepared candidate in history," in Hillary Clinton after steamrolling through 16 Republican challengers during the primaries.

That message resonated with Ken Tendal from Whiting, Iowa. "He's willing to think outside the box," Tendal told CBS News. The 59-year-old Postal Service worker added that he felt Steyer wasn't tied to traditional Democratic politicians and can bring in "new ideas."

"I really enjoyed it," said Tendal, who caucused for Bernie Sanders in 2016. This time around he says he'll be caucusing for Tom Steyer "for sure." 

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