Sustainability Climate Change

What can we expect from Bloomberg on climate change?

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg at the United Nations climate change summit

Story at a glance

  • In the last decade, the billionaire has devoted substantial shares of his time and his fortune to help reduce U.S. carbon emissions and combat climate change, mostly by supporting efforts to close coal-fired power plants.
  • But some worry that’s he’s the wrong messenger for the sweeping policy changes needed to address the climate crisis.

Newly announced Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg is worth an estimated $50 billion. He has used his considerable wealth to fund campaigns that reduced U.S. carbon emissions by shutting down coal plants. But some worry he may not be the right person to bring about the transformational changes the climate crisis demands, InsideClimate News reports

Bloomberg’s revamped website places dealing with “a climate crisis that is growing worse by the day,” among his top issues as a candidate. But his signature climate action in the past decade comes with some controversy among climate advocates. There are also concerns that a candidate like Bloomberg could cast climate change as something only older wealthy white men can afford to prioritize.

The former New York City Mayor’s signature climate change action in the past decade is a Sierra Club effort called “Beyond Coal.” Since 2010, the initiative has helped bring about the closure or planned retirement of nearly 300 coal power plants. Shutting down all these coal plants helped drive down U.S. emissions, and Bloomberg Philanthropies estimates 40 percent of the plant closures wouldn’t have come to pass without the Beyond Coal campaign.  

But many of those coal plants flipped to burning natural gas — a cleaner fossil fuel but a fossil fuel nonetheless. As recently as 2016, Bloomberg has supported natural gas as a “bridge” fuel as concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts of its extraction have eroded its standing among environmentalists as an acceptable middle-ground between coal and renewables.

Bloomberg’s new $500 million Sierra Club collaboration, called “Beyond Carbon,” appears to revise this position. “We don’t want to replace one fossil fuel with another,” Bloomberg said in June during a commencement speech at MIT. Beyond Carbon seeks to stop the construction of new natural gas plants as well as shut down all remaining coal plants.

Still, some wonder if adding Bloomberg’s name to the Democratic field will help or hurt the climate movement’s top priority for 2020: replacing President Trump. 

“The first reaction is just a huge, ‘Why?'”  R.L. Miller, political director of the advocacy group Climate Hawks Vote told InsideClimate News. “Why is he doing this?” To climate advocates like Miller, a billionaire isn’t the right champion for the transformative policies necessary to meaningfully address climate change.

Part of why Bloomberg’s wealth strikes a discordant note is that taxing the wealthy seems like a logical way to pay for sweeping climate legislation like the Green New Deal, according to Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the nonprofit Carbon Tax Center

Despite these concerns, Bloomberg’s record working for action on climate change is extensive. Bloomberg and former California Gov. Jerry Brown launched America’s Pledge to help organize and quantify the efforts of cities, states and businesses looking to uphold their commitments to reducing emissions despite the Trump Administration’s plan to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. In 2017, he chaired a task force that helped create a set of voluntary guidelines for businesses to make climate-related financial disclosures with the international Financial Stability Board

And in 2019, Bloomberg committed $10 million to the United Nations Climate Change Secretariat to make up for a funding gap after the Trump administration pulled a majority of U.S. funding for international climate action. 

His record of working on international climate diplomacy, combined with his experience leading New York City’s ambitious efforts to fight and adapt to climate change make Bloomberg’s climate resume a substantial one. 

But for Komanoff and others, a 77-year-old, pro-business billionaire looking to appeal to more moderate voters isn’t the messenger the current moment demands. As Komanoff told InsideClimate News, “Mike Bloomberg is the perfect climate candidate for 2007.”