Can Bloomberg change the planet?

By Felix Salmon
November 1, 2012

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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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Comments
12 comments so far

“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.”

That’s not fair. Obama the dictator would implement carbon taxes and strict fuel economy standards while spending aggressively on renewable energy. Obama the president with a slight Democratic majority can’t get Democratic congressmen from states like Kentucky or West Virginia to support programs that phase out coal, let alone support competing energy platforms. Obama the president with a Republican house can only talk about what he wants to do, and if he chooses to use his finite and limited talking time to focus on climate, he will get absolutely nothing accomplished, as the Republican house stands united against science and math.

Bloomberg has the luxury of not only not running for re-election, but also presiding over a city that mostly agrees with him on the climate.

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

You talk about tone when comparing the two articles but your own tone is toxic: “denialists can always slither behind” scientific facts. How is that emotive language of vilification in any way objective?
In attempting to link the devastation of Hurricane Sandy to anthropogenic global warming, Bloomberg is misreading the signals. Why did he get it so wrong? Maybe that was a confession when he said his conclusion “may generate controversy, but only among the stupid”. Everone else will know he is just plain wrong.
The ocean surface temperature across much of the North Atlantic, the genesis of Sandy, is now at average or below the long-term average sea temperature. There are no regional signs that elevated carbon dioxide is having any effect that could have influenced Sandy’s development.
US government meteorologist Martin Hoerling has noted that the coincidental alignment of tropical storm Sandy with an extra-tropical storm produced an interaction that led to the extreme event. Both tropical and extra-tropical storms are frequent at this time of year but it was the coincidence of their simultaneous timing that is fortunately relatively rare. The hurricane of 1804 had a similar pressure drop as Sandy.

Storm surge and flooding levels associated with severe storms are well known from precedents. Such events, although rare, will recur and communities must prepare for such eventualities. Building on floodplains and low-lying coastal margins has inherent risk and the damage bill will be high unless precautions are taken.
The Bible warns against building on sand, and this ancient wisdom should now be apparent all along the Jersey shore.
Links between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and dangerous climate change remain at best tenuous.
If the US had spent a fraction of the millions it has squandered on global-warming alarmism and worthless “renewable” power generation (they don’t work when the wind doesn’t blow and the Sun doesn’t shine, or when a hurricane rolls in) on weather-proofing the eastern parts of your country, the disaster would have been smaller in magnitude. In particular, levees wouldn’t have been breached in northern New Jersey, the subways wouldn’t have been flooded in New York and power stations would have continued to operate.

Posted by AllBlack | Report as abusive

““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.”
That’s not fair.”

Indeed:
While obstruction in congress prevented passage of the climate bill passed by the Pelosi House, Obama has effectively circumvented the knuckledragger elements in congress that believe there is some kind of ridiculous ulterior motive to “saving the planet for my daughters” which surely we all should want to do.

He used the EPA to effectively shut down coal power. We now burn coal for only 36% of our electricity – way down from 45% when Bush left. He quadrupled solar leases on public land. He has doubled the renewable energy on the U.S grid in terms of permits, contracts for PPAs with utilities, and ARRA-loan guarantees to help them get private financing – by the time all of the Recovery Act funded solar projects come online (the last begin in 2017).

He implemented an Executive Order requiring every Federal Agency add more renewables and efficiency to reach a 30% cut by 2020, which has resulted in our military using a simply unprecedented amount of wind and solar, and seriously test biofuels like Camelina which can be grown in states like Montana or Idaho like weeds without using water or agricultural land.

He doubled fuel efficiency of vehicles to 56 mpg, by working behind congress’s back directly with all the car companies, which by demanding that they make changes in order to get bailed out, they have been willing to do.

That’s NEVER happened, and is a good part of the reason for their bankruptcy, when gas prices skyrocketed in the summer of 2008 – and car buyers stopped buying – in fact Bush in 2007 had threatened to veto the Democrats’ proposed CAFE standard unless it was under 35 mpg. I could list much more, but am busy.

Posted by dotcommodity | Report as abusive

Really great story by the way and couldn’t agree more about the relative merits of the Bloomberg article versus the always timid NYT.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance has long been one of my favorite podcasts, with consistently great detailed renewable energy news. Kudos to Mayor Bloomberg.

Posted by dotcommodity | Report as abusive

wow. Bloomberg has his new mission in life. And like all his other missions, it doesn’t really help poor people, except by accident.

Posted by Quehashecho | Report as abusive

Climate Change will no longer be ignored. The Earth has been sending us signals for a long time and now the 770 companies and interest groups that hire more than 2300 lobbyists to prevent any US policy action on climate change might be losing the battle. We spend more on subsidizing coal and oil, than we do on tackling climate change! It’s perverse.

UNICEF produced a very interesting video debate on this, also with expert written commentaries, etc.

Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zCS2DFM0 NU&feature=player_embedded

Commentaries: http://www.unicef-irc.org/research-watch  /

Posted by RicardoPires | Report as abusive

Nice article.

There are two groups talking about this: those who will lose a LOT of money if fossil fuels become unfashionable; and those for whom money is not more important than scientific fact.

Posted by FifthDecade | Report as abusive

@AllBlack: your post is almost entirely correct, and contains a lot of good policy advice. That advice would still be good even if AGW is true.

So why state “Links between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and dangerous climate change remain at best tenuous” when that is not a fair statement about the global scientific consensus of those best equipped to know, and undercuts your good policy advice?

Don’t turn your audience off before you make your good points, if you don’t have to.

Posted by SteveHamlin | Report as abusive

It was disappointed the debates did not address this issue as both candidates/parties have starkly different views. Or at least, Romney may have different views, it’s difficult to know his position at the moment.
The American public is addicted to paying little upfront costs for energy. In many ways, we’ve been sold an interest free loan we thought we’d never have to pay back, when it reality, it’s actually an adjustable rate that is starting t come due.

Posted by thispaceforsale | Report as abusive

“The U.S. is one of the world’s biggest obstacles to real progress on climate-change issues.”

Very true… our lifestyle is envied by most of the planet… half of which seems quite willing to work to attain it.

If bloomberg the man, mayor and company, is to make climate change his personal cause I’ll make a very specific prediction: he’ll soon pivot away from carbon pollution prevention and toward mitigation.

Felix you were an early voice in the financial space writing about climate science. Are you brave enough to admit that democracies will not vote for lower growth or higher energy prices?

We may slow the growth of carbon emissions… but make no mistake it will be due to energy scarcity not some global effort to reduce our impact. Nominal carbon emissions will fall only when we start to run out of stuff to burn.

We banned CFC’s and DDT because there were workable alternatives. My children’s children will still get most of their energy from fossil sources. It’s not that we don’t understand we helped cause Katrina and Sandy… it’s just that we’re not going to turn the lights off to prevent the lights from going off.

Posted by y2kurtus | Report as abusive

Very true, y2kurtus. We need to learn to live with much more violent weather than we’ve been accustomed to in the past. That’s bad news for agricultural productivity, however, which relies on an appropriate balance of sun and rain, rather than alternating drought and flood.

Do we choose to starve just to keep the lights on? I doubt we reach that point in this generation, but your children’s children may be facing that choice.

FWIW, we have at least another century of fossil fuels available should we choose to continue burning them at the present rate. Not about to run out any time soon.

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive

Will Mayor Bloomberg back his stated belief by no longer taking weekend trips on a private jet? I can accept that none of us perfectly match our deeds with our beliefs, especially on issues requiring collective action, but his hypocrisy on CO2 is beyond reasonable.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive
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