Bloomberg and Climate Change: Bigger Giving Ahead?

If you run an environmental NGO or raise money for one, here's a question that's gotta be on your mind: How much time should you spend thinking about the fat checks that Mike Bloomberg might one day write to your organization?

There are a bunch of reasons to focus on Bloomberg Philanthropies, but some equally good reasons to just forget about landing big environmental gifts from Bloomberg.

Let's start on the hopeful side of the ledger. Bloomberg is a guy who worries deeply about climate change and environmental problems more broadly, particularly air pollution. Earlier this year, he was appointed Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change. That appointment came after a strong run of giving and leadership on climate issues. In July 2011, he made one of the biggest gifts ever to the Sierra Club when he gave it $50 million to fight coal-burning power plants over four years. Not only that, Bloomberg lent the full weight of his public reputation to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign by appearing at a news conference across from a coal plant in Virginia with the group's executive director, Michael Brune, next to him. Bloomberg also wrote an op-ed for CNN.com.

Just two months before that, Bloomberg had made a gift of $20 million to C40 Cities, a network of leading global cities, including New York, to support its efforts to fight climate change. Bloomberg was elected chair of C40 in 2010 and has worked with mayors against climate change since 2006. (See Bloomberg Philanthropies: New York City Grants.)

In 2007, Bloomberg traveled to Bali to address the U.N. climate change conference held there, urging a bigger focus on cities in the fight against climate change. Bloomberg also came out for a national carbon tax around this time, an unusual position not just for a Republican but for any American politician. Many Democrats favored the more moderate cap-and-trade approach.

More importantly, Bloomberg used his power as mayor to try to reduce New York's carbon footprint, announcing a far-reaching environmental plan for the city on Earth Day 2007. Earlier, he had pushed to get New York's government to buy as many hybrid vehicles as possible.

Okay, so the evidence is clear: Michael Bloomberg is a serious environmentalist. Thus, one could imagine that as Bloomberg continues to ramp up his philanthropy after leaving City Hall, he might give more money to environmental causes and to a widening circle of environmental groups.

Right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, Bloomberg has indeed widened his environmental giving in the past few months, with a big initiative to protect oceans (see our coverage here). And he remains deeply involved with the C40. So serious money for climate issues would seem inevitable. 

What's not likely, though, is that Bloomberg Philanthropies will create a broad environmental program that gives grants to a wide array of organizations. Which is why most environmental NGOs will probably never see any money from Bloomberg. 

First, Bloomberg Philanthropies isn't known for spreading around money to multiple organizations doing similar work. These folks go deep, not wide, making small numbers of really big grants in an attempt to have an impact on an issue. For example, the $53 million they are giving to that big oceans initiative will go to just three groups, and that's pretty much the norm there: Bloomberg picks what he sees as the best operators in a space and invests heavily in them.

So don't expect Bloomberg to become the next Ted Turner or Gordon Moore, bankrolling numerous environment outfits. If much bigger Bloomberg money does flow to the climate change issue, it's likely to go through the Sierra Club or C40.

Second, few of the people deeply involved in Bloomberg's philanthropy have an environmental background. Check out the centrist board of the Bloomberg Family Foundation: Do you see Al Gore or Bill McKibben's names on the list? No, me neither. Besides Hank Paulsonm who's mainly been concerned with conservation issues, there's no one on the board known for passion about the climate issue.

As we have reported before, Bloomberg's daughters, Emma and Georgina, are poised to play major roles in giving out their father's fortune. Both are on the board of the Bloomberg Family Foundation. Neither has been involved in environmental causes. 

So, yes, Mike Bloomberg cares about climate change. But it remains to be seen whether he'll end up as one of the major donors in this space. If I were the president of, say, the NRDC, I wouldn't be getting my hopes up. Instead, I'd still be in mourning that the Sierra Club got to Mike first.