On Monday afternoon, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman and former three-term mayor of New York City, escaped to a deserted ballroom at the Grand Hyatt, in midtown Manhattan, to talk about climate change. Moments earlier, he had announced to attendees of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance summit that his philanthropic organization was partnering with the Canadian and British governments to expedite the global eradication of coal mining. His two new partners—Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, and Claire Perry, the United Kingdom’s minister of state for energy and clean growth—came along for the discussion.
As the only person not representing a country, Bloomberg, in his new role as the U.N.’s special envoy for climate action, seemed like a substitute for American leadership—an alternative to the climate-denying Trump Administration, which Bloomberg called “a meshuggener.” But he immediately brushed aside the idea that the federal government, in this country, at least, can have a major impact on fuel sources or climate policy. “Coal will go away in any place where there’s a free market, for sure, because the market just forces that, the economics force it,” he told me. “O.K., the federal government can change some environmental regulations, but companies are going to put in the environmental safeguards anyway. Their stockholders are insisting on it, their employees are insisting on it, their customers are insisting on it, and, at the state level, they’re insisting on it.” Of greater concern, he said, are countries in which “the government has set the price for coal or whatever and is subsidizing it.” Last fall, McKenna and Perry founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which aims, in part, to help these countries adopt cleaner fuels. Sixty nations, states, cities, and companies have so far joined its polyglot roster.
At a few points during the conversation, Bloomberg returned to the idea that future targets for eliminating coal plants—2030 for developed countries; 2040 for China; 2050 for the rest of the world—don’t resonate with the public. “Twenty-anything sounds a long ways away, and so people don’t get their heads around it,” he said. “If you want people to sign on to an environmental issue, convince them that it is not climate change, it’s the environment. You say, ‘It’s your kid who’s going to go to the hospital with an asthma attack.’” Bloomberg drew an analogy with another of his causes, the fight against tobacco. “If you smoke—and you’ve got to be really stupid to smoke—then Darwin is at work,” he said. “The trouble with this stuff, what we’re talking about here, is you can do stupid things that hurt everybody for a long time.” McKenna noted that, in Ontario, once coal power was entirely eliminated, the province went from having fifty smog days a year to none.
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