After Bloomberg Philanthropies recently gave another $64 million to a campaign that’s closing down coal plants in the United States, one telling headline came from the Courier-Journal in Louisville: “New York City billionaires are battling over coal. And Kentucky is caught in the middle.”
While the fate of the coal industry is bigger than Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump, that’s a perception that Bloomberg ought to be wary of as his climate philanthropy continues to develop.
The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, with Bloomberg’s backing of over $110 million since 2011, has made a big impact in reducing coal-fired power plant emissions, which are a major threat to public health and a major contributor to climate change. But with half of the country’s coal plants closed since 2010, what’s to come for Bloomberg's climate giving? In particular, perhaps he can better serve the country and the climate movement by shifting emphasis away from shutting down coal plants and more toward helping communities create a better future.
As much as Bloomberg’s role, via his public image and philanthropy, has grown within the climate change fight, his single biggest climate-related priority has been taking down coal. First, he made a $50 million donation to the Sierra Club to expand its Beyond Coal campaign, which is multi-pronged, but focuses on helping communities organize to retire or prevent construction of coal plants. He then renewed support in 2015 with $30 million, plus another $30 million in matching gifts from other donors.
And now, a $64 million donation is sending $30 million to the Sierra Club’s work, while supporting other groups that include Earthjustice, EDF, NRDC and League of Conservation Voters. The current goal is to close 60 percent of U.S. coal plants by the end of 2020, while also making it easier for solar and wind power to compete.
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It’s the latest example of Bloomberg positioning himself as a billionaire opponent to the president’s agenda. The new grant came right after the Trump administration announced it would scrap the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, with Bloomberg calling out the decision specifically in a statement, saying, “The Trump administration has yet to realize that the war on coal was never led by Washington—and Washington cannot end it.”
Coal has been a major talking point for the administration, seizing on the relatively tiny industry’s salt-of-the-Earth image as part of its promise to bring the United States back to the 20th century. But activists and, to a large extent, the market forces of fracking and renewables have significantly weakened this massive contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
Bloomberg’s beef with Trump aside, it’s understandable why he continues to fixate on coal, for reasons I’ve written about before. Bloomberg’s philanthropy is largely rooted in major public health concerns, and coal is a killer. It’s also low-hanging fruit in the climate fight, and Bloomberg, obsessed with data, seeks to post concrete numbers with his giving—lives saved, tons of CO2, etc.
That being said, and despite Trump’s rhetoric, coal is already on the ropes—which makes you wonder if Bloomberg might be due for a new strategy.
While he certainly doesn’t have to abandon the Sierra Club’s campaign (his net worth is at $47 billion and counting, after all), it would be good to see Bloomberg shift, or at least significantly expand his climate focus. For one, Environmentalist Bloomberg 2.0 could place much more emphasis on supporting communities impacted by the country’s shifting energy mix.
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He might begin by breaking off his love affair with fracking, which he’s championed as a sensible alternative to coal, even though it extends our reliance on fossil fuels and has its own devastating public health and community impacts.
It could also mean putting more funding toward a vision of a better future in communities that are formerly or currently reliant on fossil fuel extraction. This is an area that Bloomberg has waded into a bit. He gave $3 million back in April to support economic development in communities that are historically dependent on the coal industry. But it’s been a lesser focus.
To be clear, the Sierra Club’s efforts are also about promoting more wind and solar, and Bloomberg has other irons in the fire, including the huge American Cities Initiative, which includes climate work. So it’s not like his philanthropy is single-mindedly anti-coal.
But it’s been a dominant and high-profile theme, even more high-profile during the Trump administration, a theme that is perhaps reinforcing a certain resentment toward those fighting climate change. If the sector is going to be a positive force in climate change work, it’s got to put a strong focus on supporting impacted communities as they chart brighter futures. For Bloomberg, that’s eventually going to mean moving beyond coal.