Bloomberg Champions the Private Sector’s Critical Role in Addressing Climate Change

Michael Bloomberg

Fred Krupp: As mayor, a philanthropist, and a businessman, you’ve been very concerned about climate change. A lot of people who’ve been leaders in this country haven’t really taken it on. Why have you decided to put time and energy into this issue?

Mike Bloomberg: I should start out by saying I want my kids and my grandkids to have clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and an ability to get to work and not have to worry about more storms, as well as having a place to ski and play golf.

The two big things that we’ve got to focus on are public health issues and environmental issues. They come together at an intersection. Our foundation spends a very large percentage of its money on public health and environmental things. Last year, we gave away $425 million, I think—all the profits of Bloomberg basically go to the foundation.

Governments are notoriously bad at facing controversial issues and going against established practices. Establishment always finds a way to support government, and so government, by taking their money, is afraid to antagonize them. New York is a good example, or the United States. Federal government either says that climate change isn’t a problem or that climate change is not influenced by what individuals and companies do, and yet we all know that’s not the case.

But the private sector has put solar panels on their roofs—unless they live in Florida, where the law prevents them from doing it. Corporations are doing the same thing. Bloomberg generates 70 percent of its own electricity, which was done without me getting involved. I just woke up one day and found that Bloomberg had done that.

I got made fun of when I painted a roof about five years ago with Al Gore. In Brooklyn and Queens, a lot of the buildings are five-stories and flat-roofed. We’re up there with the rollers and the cameras going, and we paint it white. Today, 90 percent of the roofs are painted white. You look down a block, and there’ll be one house that didn’t do it. You’ll wonder, “What on earth are they thinking? For two cans of paint, they can cut their Con Ed bill by 25 percent overnight.”

It’s the private sector that’s doing it. In New York City, 80 percent of our greenhouse gases come from buildings and 20 percent from transportation. It’s exactly the reverse every place else. New York is so dense, and people walk and take mass transit. All of the hybrid stuff that we do—hybrid garbage cans, hybrid cars—helps a little bit, but the big polluter in New York City has always been the buildings. They typically use Number 6 fuel oil to heat—coal went out a long time ago here.

We got Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan to arrange to give two-year payback loans to landlords and convert to natural gas. 2,500 out of the 5,000 buildings—those were all the ones where gas was already running down the street—switched to natural gas. New York City’s greenhouse gases are down something like 19 percent. That’s an example of how the private sector and local government can get together and do things. But at a state or federal level in America, they just are afraid to take on the established interest. I think that’s true in many countries around the world.

Fred Krupp: The Environmental Defense Fund was involved with the Clean Heat program. In addition to greenhouse gases going down, New York City now has the cleanest air—as you know, because you’re responsible for it—in 50 years: 70 percent less sulfur, 30 percent less chromium. What you did there is really a demonstration, Mike, of what you’ve done so effectively, both as a mayor and as a philanthropist: affect policy so the government can get out of the way, and the private sector can do those things.

Mike Bloomberg: The government is paralyzed by special interests.

I’ve always believed that no government exists without the will of the majority of its people. I think the greatest modern-day example of that took place in the last month: In Beijing, they agreed they’re going to close all coal-fired power plants, and they put in a smoking ban that takes effect July 1. The government in Beijing had to do it with the acquiescence and approval of the national government because that’s the way China works—but what they’re really petrified of is the people who live in Beijing being up in arms and saying, “We can’t have our kids breathe this air. We’ve got to fix these problems.”

Government does work if enough people get together. I suppose the biggest example is the Berlin Wall. You had two nuclear powers facing each other, and if anybody tried to swim from East Germany to West Germany, they machine-gunned him. Yet, one day the public walked up to the guards and said, “Get out of here.” The guards all dropped their weapons and literally, with no outside help, they just ripped down the wall.

Nobody knows when that concurrence of public opinion is going to be there, on the right day, with the right weather, and the right leader.

You can do the same thing with public health issues and with environmental issues. I work with Hank Paulson and Tom Steyer on Risky Business, where we’re trying to identify risks that companies have from environmental change. No matter how right-wing you are, no executive is going to leave their building subject to a flood without either moving the building, building a berm, or taking out insurance. The public is influenced by all of this press. We keep thinking we’re not making any progress, but you do make progress.

Fred Krupp: Mike, you’ve been appointed by Ban Ki Moon to be Special Envoy for Cities and Climate. What does that job entail?

Mike Bloomberg: I don’t think Ban Ki Moon would say it publicly, but he subscribes to the idea that federal governments are not doing this cutting-edge carrying-the-water. It is the cities. He wants the United Nations to be a participant and be able to effect change. He called up and said, “Would you like to be a Special Envoy representing cities?”

I’m president of the C40: 66 cities that swap ideas and policies on environmental issues.

I was in India, for example, representing the Secretary General. India is one of the key players that you really want to sign on to address climate change in Paris this December.

Fred Krupp: You met Modi there.

Mike Bloomberg: I got to know Modi when he was here for UN Week last week.

He’s got two problems, and I’ve tried to convince him that he’s on the wrong side of it. He says, “We’ve got 400 million people in India who don’t have electricity, and I’ve got to address that issue before I address the environmental problems.” There’s a really a big dichotomy in that country. They have starvation and they’ve got one of the highest rates of diabetes, which means obesity. It’s a very complex country with the whole spectrum of problems and assets for the future. You can be very optimistic if you’re Indian, but you have to go and address the issues.

I said, “You will not have an economy unless you address your environmental issues.” Delhi’s air is worse than Beijing’s, and tourists aren’t going to go there. People aren’t going to bring their families there to start new businesses. People are going to move out. You cannot create new jobs unless you address the environment. Incidentally, environmental stuff can create jobs.

In America, we’re doing a lot of job creation with solar panels and wind—much more so than the jobs that are being lost by the automation of digging up coal. Coal production really hasn’t gone down, because we can export coal. Jobs are lost because they’ve gone to strip-mining, which is highly automated, destroying the environment, and destroying great scenery and recreational benefits. But the number of coal jobs lost are more than replaced by number of jobs in new energy. That could happen in India, as well.

Have I convinced him? I don’t know, but I have on my to-do list to give him a call. Once China said, “We’re going to close some coal-fired power plants,” it’s hard to see him not looking across the border and thinking that China’s got the problem of half a billion people on a dollar a day, as well as a lot of people having moved to the middle class. Those are the same kinds of problems that Modi has. Maybe one can feed off the other.

Fred Krupp: You mentioned coal. You made a big announcement last week with the Sierra Club about a grant for the Beyond Coal work.

Mike Bloomberg: The most impressive thing is that we’re not the only funder. We’ve actually brought in others. I’ve always thought Bloomberg Philanthropy should lead—we try to go where nobody else is funding. But then you’ve got to create another funding stream, to have the political power of many funders and many supporters rather than one.

Fred Krupp: As you’ve traveled around the world in this role, what is the perception of the US on the climate issue?

Mike Bloomberg: They use the word “meshuggeneh”—that we’re crazy.

In all fairness, I think the right wing has stopped saying that climate change doesn’t exist. They’ve changed the dialogue to, “It’s not caused by man’s actions.” They’ve been forced to do that because in every congressperson’s district, there’s been a tornado, a flood, a drought, or unforeseen heat or cold. They think, “I can’t say nothing’s happening in the environment, but I don’t have to sign on to anything that we think the Democrats would support.”

I don’t know why we think Democrats have been great on the environment—they haven’t been. Neither have Republicans. Both groups are always influenced by single-issue advocacy groups that don’t have to play by the Marquess of Queensberry rules.

I’ve always thought that the pro-environmental people should get a lot tougher, and start threatening. The reason the NRA is so powerful is that they say “You’ve got to vote with us.”

You say, “I can’t do it. I’m good on the other issues but I’m not good on guns.”

The NRA would say, “We’re going to go after you.”

You say, “But my opponent’s worse.”

They say, “We don’t care. We’re going after your spouse, your kids, and your grandkids. We’re setting up a fund so five generations from now, we’re still going to go after every relative of yours.”

You say, “That’s totally irrational. These guys are crazy! Okay. Bloomberg will still vote for me because he likes my position on all these other things and he won’t worry about the gun issue.”

The environmental people have to say, “You are murdering people, and we’ve got to stop this.” The Wall Street Journal had an editorial, which I’m writing a response to with Antha Williams, who runs all our environmental stuff at Bloomberg Philanthropies. They talked about how it’s killing jobs. Well, you’re killing people! In America, because we close 187 power plants, the modeling says instead of 13,000 Americans dying every year, it’s now down to something like 7,000 Americans. You save 6,000 lives every year. How do you put that in the context of a few jobs?

I’m sympathetic to the people that are losing their jobs—although there’s disruptive technologies everyplace. In fact, in Florida the regulators won’t let you generate your own electricity—they won’t let the grid buy it back from you. The world is changing. Good companies and good industries adjust, and bad ones go out of business. That’s what you want. Otherwise you’d never get out of the caveman days.

Fred Krupp: On the planet, there isn’t anybody else like you who’s driven results in the business community, as an elected official, and then in global policy-making on things like smoking and traffic deaths. Can you give us some insight as to what has allowed you to drive so many results in these very different spheres?

Mike Bloomberg: I don’t think it’s fair to say I’m the only one—there are a lot of people doing a lot of great things. I am coming after them. They’re my role models and so they deserve a lot of the credit.

Fred Krupp: But you’ve done it in elected office and in business.

Mike Bloomberg: I’ve got a company that generates a lot of cash, and we give it away. If you give away $450 million a year, that gets you a lot of access. I’ve got a news organization, which gets you interest.

I was lucky enough to be an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins. I got on the board and was then chairman of the board, so I got to look at public health issues. Al Summers and the School of Public Health, which is now named the Bloomberg School of Public Health, has opened my eyes to the idea that if we were a little smarter and prevented things, it’d be a lot more efficient and compassionate than curing them afterwards.

Being in New York has made a big difference, because the United Nations is here.

I’m certainly not the only one. You deserve a lot of credit, and a lot of people like you, who have taken on these issues.

My staff has really advised me. I’d love to tell you that these are my ideas, but one of the things I do well is listen.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a situation where you can do something, and if by accident it works, then people give you other opportunities.

Fred Krupp: Mike, last year, the world added more to its GDP without adding carbon emissions. According to BNEF, we’ve not only added more renewables than fossil fuel, but we’re also going to continue that trend. What else do we need to do to accelerate it? How do we add enough to forestall this problem?

Mike Bloomberg: From an invention point of view, storage is the issue. Musk, or somebody like that, will come along. Battery technology is getting better.

There are estimates that the increase in technology in the next four years will be equal to the amount of technology from Thomas Edison to today. Let’s assume only 10 percent of that is true. Moore’s Law on steroids is taking place throughout our environment and our lives. People will find ways to distribute electricity without all the losses along the lines. They’ll find ways to store.

I think solar is the most likely winner. Wind has its problems—it’s less reliable than solar. If you’re a Bayesian statistician, the likelihood of the sun coming up tomorrow is much greater than the wind blowing tomorrow. You’re better off making those kinds of investments—although wind and other renewables have a place.

I’ve been in favor of fracking, because at least for the immediate future, we are not going to have enough solar, wind, and renewable capacity to replace coal. Coal is so damaging that I would rather run some risks with fracking and put up with the amount of pollution that burning natural gas does add. It’s a much better deal today.

I would certainly argue we should have very strong, enforced laws to make sure that we aren’t creating an environmental disaster above ground.

Fred Krupp: In fact, you’ve given the Environmental Defense Fund a bunch of money.

Mike Bloomberg: To do exactly that!

Nuclear is another one. It is possible to build nuclear power plants that are safe. Nuclear has not killed anybody in the United States, to the best of my knowledge, whereas coal kills thousands of people. It would be nicer not to have nuclear, but I don’t know if I could give you a great reason for that.

Everything comes with a downside. The question is whether the price you pay is less than the value you receive. With fracking today, it clearly is.

If you showed me that we solved the storage and distribution problems with solar, I might reverse my position on fracking. But we’re not anywhere near having solar take over. Tomorrow we’ll save a life if we close a coal-fired power plant. In America, we’ve closed 187. There are still 300 coal-fired power plants. If you want to do one thing to reduce greenhouse gases in America, that’s it. It’s the one thing that India and China could do. India and China together are a third of the world’s population. There’s a lot of potential there.