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Mike Bloomberg says he has the best record on climate change. Does he?

The billionaire former New York mayor funded a successful program to close coal power plants. But activists say his plans for the future lack ambition.

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is running for president in part on his record in fighting climate change. Above, Bloomberg talks to supporters at a rally on February 20, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
George Frey/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will soon be on the ballot in the Democratic presidential primary for the first time in 15 states and territories. Ahead of voting on Super Tuesday, March 3, he is flooding the airwaves with $124 million worth of ads.

Bloomberg’s climate change record is a key part of his pitch:

In a field where all the candidates have relatively ambitious climate plans, Bloomberg stands out for what he’s already done: Through his work as the mayor of the country’s largest city and his charitable spending, he has fueled tangible reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and abroad. This record, he says, is better than anything his rivals have accomplished on climate change.

But some environmental groups disagree with how he’s positioned himself and remain unimpressed with his plans to deal with rising average temperatures.

“I think that’s a very subjective claim to begin with,” said Ryan Schleeter, a spokesperson for Greenpeace USA, which has ranked Bloomberg’s climate plan last among 2020 presidential contenders. “He has committed to doing less than other candidates in the race.”

Bloomberg, the eighth-richest person in America, per Forbes, has used his immense wealth for years to back a variety of causes and institutions, ranging from the Museum of Science in Boston to Johns Hopkins University, his alma mater. And climate change has been a major focus of his spending.

In giving the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign more than $100 million, Bloomberg has financed an international effort to take the dirtiest source of energy offline.

“Well, already we’ve closed 304 out of 530 [coal] power plants in the United States and we’ve closed 80 out of the 200 or 300 in Europe,” he said during the Nevada debate.

These shutdowns are a key reason why US greenhouse gas emissions have declined in the past decade, even as the economy has grown. According to the Sierra Club, coal power retirements to date have also saved at least 7,000 lives, avoided $3.4 billion in health care costs, and averted more than 81,000 asthma attacks.

As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg presided over a reduction in the city’s carbon footprint — at twice the rate of the rest of the country, even as New York’s economy grew.

If elected president, Bloomberg has promised that he will act on grand plans to limit climate change, aimed not just at coal, but also at natural gas, now the largest source of electricity in the United States.

But activists and fellow presidential contenders have criticized Bloomberg’s vision for the future. His climate proposals aren’t as sweeping as those from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Bloomberg was also critical of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress last year. He also doesn’t want to ban fracking, a controversial technique for extracting oil and natural gas.

Bloomberg has nonetheless made himself one of the most consequential players in climate change action in the US. So it’s worth unpacking what he’s done and what he wants to do.

Bloomberg’s philanthropy is fueling a wave of coal power plant retirements

Coal power has been on a long-term decline in the US for decades — a trend that has continued under President Trump, despite his efforts to prop it up with bailouts and rollbacks of environmental regulations. Since 2010, US coal energy capacity has fallen by more than one-third, largely due to competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. Coal now provides just over 27 percent of US electricity.

However initiatives like Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal have been critical in closing coal plants. With a team of lawyers and activists, Beyond Coal shows up to sleepy public hearings and utility commission meetings around the country where they argue that coal is too expensive and harmful. Their efforts have led to the closures of dozens of power plants and helped scrap new ones on the drawing board. This decline of US coal has reduced domestic carbon dioxide emissions by 605 million metric tons.

And Bloomberg’s money has been crucial to Beyond Coal’s success.

“We’re grateful for the significant support we have received from Bloomberg Philanthropies, and our campaign has unquestionably benefited from a strong focus on data-driven metrics of success at the same time as we fight for a just transition for coal workers and communities,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, in a statement.

According to the New York Times, Bloomberg has given more than $278 million in charitable contributions to various climate change efforts. One such effort is the American Cities Climate Challenge, which provides provides technical support and guidance to 25 major US cities aiming to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Bloomberg also founded Beyond Carbon, which he called “the largest-ever campaign to fight climate change in the United States.” The $500 million campaign is aimed at promoting and electing state and local leaders who will work to pass laws and policies promoting clean energy.

Bloomberg has made himself the de facto US climate ambassador

President Trump announced in his first year in office that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. That withdrawal will take place later this year.

Having the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter back out was a huge blow to the Paris agreement and threatened to derail international efforts to limit climate change. But since the announcement of the US withdrawal, Bloomberg has funded and led a coalition of city and state leaders who remain committed to upholding their share of the US commitment to curb emissions under the Paris climate agreement.

Former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) speaks with US actor Harrison Ford (L) during the opening reception for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California on September 12, 2018.
Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has teamed up with celebrities like Harrison Ford (left) to promote his climate agenda.
Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

The initiative, called America’s Pledge, has made itself a major presence at international climate negotiations, as the official US government presence has shrunk. Bloomberg attended the recent United Nations climate negotiations in Madrid with a delegation of activists and a movie star, proclaiming to gathered negotiators at the meeting that “We are still in.”

“The ‘we are still in’ message is very important and to have a personality such as [Bloomberg] is very important, particularly since he has a lot of influence in the New York finance community,” Sebastien Treyer, director of environmental think tank IDDRI, told AFP.

In 2018, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres appointed Bloomberg as special envoy for climate action.

Bloomberg is also personally paying for the US share of contributions to the United Nations climate change secretariat, a total of $10 million over the past two years. He has also pledged $50 million for international effort to close down coal power plants in other countries. The Beyond Coal program now has a counterpart in Europe that is fueling a wave of retirements there are well.

During the Nevada debate, Bloomberg called for de-escalating trade tensions with China and called for greater cooperation on climate matters. But he also said that India was becoming a larger contributor to climate change.

“What you have to do is convince the Chinese that it is in their interest [to combat climate change] as well,” he said. “In all fairness, the Chinese have slowed down. It is India that is an even bigger problem, but it is an enormous problem. Nobody is doing anything about it.”

Currently, China is the world’s top emitter, followed by the US and then India. Bloomberg also has significant business interests in China, which could create more potential conflicts if were to become president, but a spokesperson told the Washington Post that he believes the climate will remain an important area of collaboration.

As president, Bloomberg thinks he can pass much his climate agenda by himself

While Bloomberg’s climate change plan isn’t the most aggressive or expensive among the 2020 contenders (those mantles likely go to Sanders’s proposals), it would be hard to call his plans anything but ambitious.

His website calls for 100 percent clean power, with the power sector 80 percent decarbonized by 2028. The plan includes shuttering the remaining coal power plants in the US and ending new construction of natural gas power. That will be driven in part by tougher rules on air pollution.

It also calls for holding businesses responsible for contributing to climate change and centers environmental justice as a priority. “Mike will make sure those most affected by pollution have access to clean energy and the jobs that come with it,” according to his proposal. “He will prioritize supporting coal plant workers and their communities, making sure they get promised health and retirement benefits.”

Bloomberg’s climate agenda also calls for zeroing out emissions from new buildings by 2025 and quadrupling federal clean-energy research and development funding to $25 billion a year.

And Bloomberg thinks he can do this largely without input from Congress. Many of these policies can be implemented via executive orders and existing authorities under current law. But as President Trump’s rollbacks of Obama’s climate policies have shown, anything that can be implemented just by a new administration can be repealed just by the next.

Bloomberg’s public record may be a liability for his climate ambitions

On the Debate stage in Nevada this month, Bloomberg’s accomplishments and ambitions on climate did little to dissuade attacks during the debate on his civil liberties record as mayor, sexual harassment allegations at his company, and the very idea of a billionaire buying his way into an election.

Activist groups like the Sunrise Movement said that Bloomberg’s past support of policies like stop and frisk during his time as mayor of New York, his investments in fossil fuels, and his anti-union rhetoric undermine the coalition needed to get aggressive action on climate change.

Activists have also noted that Bloomberg has a record as a Republican who worked to elect other Republicans, who in turn undermined climate policies and research.

The question then is how voters will weigh Bloomberg’s climate record against the rest of his history. And in a race with so many other contenders with major climate change goals and without Bloomberg’s baggage, it’s not clear that Bloomberg’s work on fighting climate change is enough to move the needle.

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