As mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg turned the city’s iconic yellow taxicabs into hybrids, expanded bike lanes and raised floodwalls against worsening storms.
As a presidential candidate, he has touted his role as one of the largest climate philanthropists in the world, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars to help shut down dirty coal plants and promote clean energy.
And his campaign believes his largesse on such a priority issue for Democratic voters can make up for some of the more controversial policies from his past.
Despite those efforts, the billionaire media mogul is facing skepticism from some of the nation’s largest environmental groups, who currently rank his proposal to fight climate change as among the worst of all Democrats running for president.
Greenpeace has given Bloomberg’s climate action plan a C+ rating – tied with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – and the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund also ranked both candidates last for proposing “the vaguest and weakest climate plans.”
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has pledged to declare a national climate emergency and phase out existing fossil fuel production, leads both rankings. The groups also rate Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and billionaire Tom Steyer’s proposals highly.
“There’s still a lot of low hanging fruit that the next president can reach for that the Bloomberg campaign has not committed to,” said Ryan Schleeter, a spokesman for Greenpeace. “So to call his campaign plan doable still leaves a lot of room for improvement.”
APPRECIATION AND DISTRUST
Bloomberg’s climate message on the campaign trail has been one of pragmatism, promoting a “doable plan to combat climate change” in his advertisements and “reasonable” goals on the stump.
“If you set reasonable objectives, and if you include the public and explain what you’re trying to do, we really can make progress,” Bloomberg said in December, outlining his climate agenda. “And we are better off because of that, but we’re certainly nowhere near where we have to be.”
In private, however, his campaign has been pressed by activists from the two environmental groups to commit to a series of actions he could take as president to combat the effects of climate change – and offset the costs of a full transition to renewable fuels – without the help of Congress.
Greenpeace also asked Bloomberg to wholeheartedly embrace the Green New Deal – a proposal he has criticized as infeasible.
His campaign has resisted those appeals. And at a Democratic presidential debate last week in Nevada, Bloomberg only exacerbated activist concerns by citing natural gas – which emits roughly half the carbon that coal does – as a “transition fuel.” Environmentalists call that description a “false myth” put forth by the fossil fuel industry, intended to slow down a complete transition to renewable energy.
Their distrust of Bloomberg intensified this week when they noticed the removal of a critical commitment – to end fossil fuel leasing on public lands – from his campaign website. A Bloomberg campaign official said the candidate’s pledge to end the practice has not changed, and that his campaign web team is simply streamlining their site to accommodate more policy rollouts.
“The bar for what is necessary on climate action is set by science – not by Greenpeace’s opinion. And the science says we have less than a decade,” said Schleeter. “The main place where he is lacking in our opinion is his commitment to confront the fossil fuel industry.”
While environmental groups have expressed appreciation for Bloomberg’s philanthropic efforts, they distinguish his giving from his policy proposals.
“His plan has the least detail of any,” Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund spokesman Brett Hartl said. “Just sort of saying, ‘I’m going to address climate change,’ really isn’t enough.”
‘DIFFERENCE OF STRATEGY, NOT GOALS’
Bloomberg campaign spokeswoman Daphne Wang said the reason the former mayor does not come in higher in the two groups’ rankings has to do with a “difference of strategy, not goals.”
“These groups are focused on shutting down the supply side of fossil fuels,” Wang said in an email. Their scoring systems “are based on whether a candidate pledges to ban fracking, end fossil fuel production and ban fossil fuel exports.”
Bloomberg’s climate plan, which has been rolled out in phases over the last three months, in contrast, “focuses on replacing uses of oil and gas across the economy” by reducing demand for those energy sources, “but not on immediately shutting down all production,” Wang said.
Or as Bloomberg said during last week’s debate in Las Vegas, “We’re not going to get rid of fracking for a while.”
Wang said it’s not that Bloomberg doesn’t believe in using executive action and other presidential tools to combat climate change, but that is “not doable for the president to simply ban fracking, fossil fuel exports and production. Those all require an act of Congress.”
Hartl, however, said that focusing on demand for fossil fuels but not their supply represents a “false choice.”
“Incentives are wonderful, we’re not opposed to any of that,” he said. But Hartl said they should be used in addition to, not instead of, presidential action to ban fracking, ramp down existing oil production and fully enforce laws like the Clean Air Act. “Why would you not use half of the tools at your disposal?” he asked.
Bloomberg placed environmental policy at the center of his agenda as mayor, reducing New York City’s carbon footprint, improving its trash disposal methods and tying development and construction projects across the five boroughs with updated environmental standards.
After Superstorm Sandy devastated the city in 2012, toward the end of his mayorship, Bloomberg recommended a series of ambitious reforms to protect vulnerable New York communities from future flooding events.
Bloomberg remained active in the fight against climate change after leaving City Hall, serving as a United Nations climate envoy and leading a group of 96 major cities worldwide in a concerted effort to tackle urban climate policy. In June 2019, Bloomberg Philanthropies launched the Beyond Carbon campaign to eliminate all U.S. use of fossil fuels, and pledged to invest $500 million in the effort – the largest philanthropic effort to fight the climate crisis at the time, according to his foundation.
Bloomberg has also donated more than $150 million to the Beyond Coal campaign to transition the United States away from coal-powered energy. The Sierra Club, which received the bulk of those funds, did not respond to a request for comment on Bloomberg’s climate change proposal.
The Sierra Club and other leading environmental groups have opted not to pick a candidate in the fragmented presidential primary contest, which features major donors like Bloomberg and Tom Steyer as well as many of their political allies in Washington.
When it comes to Bloomberg’s philanthropy, Hartl said, “We’re not going to criticize it at all, that’s a good thing.”
But “the real question is what would you do with the power of the presidency to address climate change, which is far far greater than being just a philanthropist. With his plans, in particular, there is very, very little detail about what he would specifically do that really gets at the heart of the issue.”