Can Bloomberg change the planet?

November 1, 2012


Bloomberg — the man, the mayor, the corporation — has come out hard today on the subject of climate change. There’s the striking cover of this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek, with its no-nonsense message, along with an accompanying tweet from the editor, puckishly saying that it “may generate controversy, but only among the stupid”.

Paul Barrett’s cover story itself is absolutely first rate, especially when compared to the way that Justin Gillis of the NYT covers the same subject. While the two pieces are not all that far apart if you read them diligently, their tone is very different, and their headlines are worlds apart: the NYT plumped for “Are Humans to Blame? Science Is Out”. To give you an idea of the tone of the NYT piece, its final sentence begins with the words “Scientists say they believe” — a phrase which can be inserted before just about any fact, if what you want to do is turn it into a debatable opinion.

One of the problems here is similar to the debate about Nate Silver: individual events can rarely prove anything. If Silver says that there’s a 26% chance of Romney winning the election, and then Romney wins the election, that in and of itself says nothing about Silver or his model: the model does say, after all, that there’s a very real chance Romney will win. Similarly, global climate change models show certain weather events — like, say, flooding in lower Manhattan — becoming much more frequent. But they were always possible, and therefore denialists can always slither behind their “you can’t prove that this wouldn’t have happened even without climate change” argument.

The NYT sees that argument as insurmountable, while Bloomberg sees it as an important challenge to be knocked down, talking about how there are “more and more credentialed experts willing to shrug off the climate caveats”.

Meanwhile, the mayor himself, endorsing Obama for president, makes his most important concern very clear in the headline: “A Vote for a President to Lead on Climate Change”. Giving Obama an endorsement on the basis of his climate-change leadership is a bit like giving him the Nobel Peace Prize: it’s something done more for the sake of hoped-for future actions than for past ones. Both candidates have avoided the issue in their campaigning, although in the wake of Sandy, the Obama campaign could do worse than to run this clip, from Romney’s RNC acceptance speech, in its ads.

It does seem here that Bloomberg the news organization, with its stated aim of being the most influential news organization in the world, is making a concerted push to drive climate change much further up the U.S. political agenda. With Bloomberg the man is doing his part to help. Bloomberg’s third and final mayoral term has less than a year to run, and it remains an open question what he’s going to devote his life to when it’s over. He clearly doesn’t need to spend most of his time running Bloomberg the company, which seems to be doing fine without his day-to-day involvement.

Looking down Bloomberg’s own list of the world’s top billionaires, it’s easy to be struck by the fact that very, very few of them have the power or importance of the mayor of New York City. Bloomberg, the man, has shaped New York dramatically, just as he has shaped the world of financial information. He’s going to want to be equally important and influential after 2013 — and climate change might just be his cause. (Rather than urbanism, which was my idea back in 2008.)

The U.S. is one of the world’s biggest obstacles to real progress on climate-change issues, and the biggest reason why is that the American public really doesn’t care very much about it. If Bloomberg could change America’s mind on climate change, much as Pete Peterson has changed America’s mind on the importance of bringing down the national deficit, then at least climate change would be a live political issue rather than a Republican Party punchline.

In his Obama endorsement, Bloomberg talks about “the world I want to leave my two daughters” — he’s a man who genuinely aspires to changing the planet. It won’t be easy: indeed, the odds are surely against him. But even a small chance of getting something done is worth spending a few billion dollars on, given the enormous potential positive effect it could have on billions of people both living and not yet born.


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