Michael Bloomberg’s Green New Delusions

– Nafis H

Author’s Note: I originally received the book “Climate of Hope” by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg as a gag birthday gift. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d really read it at all. However, with Bloomberg throwing his hat in the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate ring, I was intrigued to find out what his version of the Green New Deal would look like. Considering that his website still does not have a full plan on climate resiliency, mitigation and adaptation, I turned to this book. Quick disclaimer – this is not a change of heart story. 

 

Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, and a wealthy businessman, joined the 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate race on Nov 21, 2019 after filing with the FEC and officially launched his candidacy on Nov 24 at a campaign event in Virginia. Since then, he has poured an obscene amount of money into buying TV ads for his campaign, spending up to $57 million between Nov 24 – Dec 3; in comparison, fellow billionaire and candidate Tom Steyer has spent $60 million on TV ads since his campaign launch back in July. However, Bloomberg is yet to release full policy proposals for his “Rebuild America Fighting for our future” platform, including his strategy to combat climate change. One can get a glimpse of his strategy in the 2017 book “Climate of Hope”, which he co-authored with former Sierra Club chairman and executive director, Carl Pope. The authors describe writing this book as reaching similar conclusions from very different backgrounds – they set up the usual dichotomies of the Wall St finance guy (Bloomberg) vs the liberal environmentalist (Pope), New Yorker (Bloomberg) vs Californian (Pope), only to bridge their differences through their deep optimism that the fight against climate change can be won, even in the “current political climate.” 

Bloomberg and Pope believe that as long as corporations can be shown that “there is money to be made from the transition to a low-carbon future” and to achieve success in the fight against climate change “reducing carbon must offer profit opportunities”, we will win. In their view, the conversation about climate change can no longer be conducted in the usual manner. They argue, 

“Instead of debating long-term consequences, let’s talk about immediate threats. Instead of arguing about making sacrifices, let’s talk about how we can make money. Instead of pitting the environment versus the economy, let’s consider market principles and economic growth. Instead of focusing on polar bears, let’s focus on asthmatic children. And instead of putting all hope in the federal government, let’s empower cities, regions, businesses, and citizens to accelerate the progress they are already making on their own.”

The same dichotomy is brought up in the closing section of the book where Bloomberg argues that people should be having the above conversation everyday with their friends, family, etc., and that taking a positive, success-oriented climate change conversation should move “… away from fear and towards hope. Away from ice caps and towards jobs and health.” The emphasis on the success story will win over the skeptics, according to Bloomberg and Pope.

How can cities become such success stories? Bloomberg’s strategy, backed up by his experience as UN Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, is to center it around major cities. He provides his experience with PlaNYC, an infrastructure program enacted in NYC under his leadership that includes climate resiliency and congestion pricing programs, and cites examples of major European cities that have utilized climate resilient infrastructure such as Paris, Copenhagen, Dutch cities, etc. Bloomberg also correctly identifies major sources of carbon emissions in a city – utility companies, transit and buildings. His tactics rely on market mechanisms (“markets are the most effective way to organize resources in a world of scarcity”), innovation through public-private partnership and governmental regulation of corporations to rein in profiteering practices. He insists that local governments such as municipalities and cities cannot rely on the federal government to start taking action, going as far as posing Congress as a major obstacle to climate change adaptation (perhaps rightly so), and should take initiatives themselves. For Bloomberg, the greatest threat to humanity is also the greatest opportunity to capitalize on, making his central ideology a mix of disaster capitalism and technocracy with a dash of libertarianism. Bloomberg’s ideal sustainable city would have clean energy from investor owned utilities (which would include nuclear and natural gas), where fleets of autonomous electric vehicles run by rideshare companies alongside bikes and rapid bus transit and the subway, along with zoning regulations that would allow defenses to be built along the coastline as long as real estate developers cough up a fee. 

Bloomberg’s business approach to solving climate change, as an alternative to mainstream environmental activism, is epitomized in the following – 

“I’m not exactly your stereotypical environmentalist. I don’t own a pair of Birkenstocks, eat granola, hug trees, lie down in front of bulldozers, oppose GMOs, or lose sleep over spotted owls. I don’t want to ban fracking (just do it safely) or stop the Keystone pipeline (the oil is coming here one way or another), and I support nuclear power. I’ve spent most of my career in finance, and the technology my company makes is used by traders, financiers, and executives around the world (the smart ones, at least). So why did a guy like me become a crusader  against climate change? Very simply: to save and improve lives.”

This entire quote is set up to portray Bloomberg’s seriousness when dealing with the issue of climate crisis, the macho savior who knows things and has enough influence and power to solve issues rather than the fun-loving free soul vegan hippy who alternates between lying down in front of bulldozers and hugging trees. Bloomberg’s dichotomy exposes his own delusions – that fracking can be done in a safe manner (even as the New England Journal of Medicine cautions against health and other hazards of fracking), that natural gas is climate friendly (check this leak from one single plant run by Exxon), that stopping the Keystone pipeline doesn’t save lives, that saving other organisms shouldn’t be a priority to fight climate change. Of course, the question then becomes – whose lives is Bloomberg interested in saving? Even Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative that he touts throughout the book, as urban planning professor Peter Marcuse writes, is not a plan for all of NYC but rather a plan for the four boroughs to “feed into” the lower Manhattan business district, a plan for the business community rather than one for the marginalized. 

Bloomberg’s belief that corporations can be incentivized to fight climate change is a textbook example of what Naomi Klein described as disaster capitalism in her book The Shock Doctrine (2007); his attempts at providing evidence on how corporations, if pressured to understand that environmental and social concerns should also be included for corporate governance, actually backfires on him. He cites a 2016 letter that BlackRock CEO Larry Fink sent to other CEOs as proof that corporations can be made to care more about environmental and societal concerns than quarterly profits. Three years later, BlackRock still remains one of the world’s largest investors in fossil fuel companies, even as they lost $90 billion over a decade, and natural gas infrastructure will become stranded assets as the price for solar and wind drops. With solar power gaining more and more traction, corporations are already hovering in the Global South to ramp up lithium extraction at the cost of fragile ecosystems and indigenous land.

The centering of climate change policies around jobs and economic growth is not new; Bloomberg proposes three concrete steps to create a federal jobs guarantee program. The first, he proposes would be to revive the conservation program associated with Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) but for the coal belt, second – impose a small fee on electricity transmission to create a pension and healthcare fund for workers losing jobs in the fossil fuel industry and also to fund grid upgrades, and third, overhaul the education system. The first idea is sound, except it has no recognition of how historically conservation efforts in the US, including the TVA,  have displaced indigenous communities. The second puts the onus on ratepayers rather than utility companies, not to mention that it is usually the case that once coal companies go under the bosses cheat the workers out of pay as evidenced by the recent Harlan County miners strike. The third doesn’t provide much detail except possibly taking a stance against the more left idea of free college for all. 

Ultimately, Bloomberg fails to realize that the reason why we are at this precipice of climate disaster is precisely because of failure of market mechanisms and the profiteering by fossil fuel corporations, which the governments have actively aided and continue to do so through tax cuts and subsidies. This makes his plans all the more delusional considering that consumer activism cannot stop the flow of capital and carbon across borders, and new market mechanisms are created to aid such flows. Solving the climate crisis doesn’t need a business approach, it needs business as a form to die – through abolition of commodity form, shorter working weeks and less of batshit jobs, centering progress around well-being instead of GDP and economic growth, and dismantling the capitalist totality that we are barely surviving under. 

 

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