During Michael Bloomberg’s twelve-year tenure as mayor of New York City, he saw firsthand how climate change was affecting the city—and realized that it was going to lob even more enormous challenges in the future. Encroaching seas? Check. Heat waves? Those, too. Stressing the water system, the transportation system, and more? Yup, that too.
It was clear to Bloomberg that the problem wasn’t going to go away. It was also clear that the federal government wasn’t going to do enough meaningful to address the problem, he says.
But Bloomberg realized that New York and other cities didn’t have to wait: They could take their future into their own hands. And in making themselves more sustainable and resilient to onrushing climate change, cities could also make a serious dent in global carbon emissions, because so much of the world’s population lives in urban areas—meaning that the choices that cities make impact the entire world.
Bloomberg Philanthropies partnered with National Geographic to produce Paris to Pittsburgh, a documentary film highlighting the actions that cities, counties, and towns around the U.S. are taking to address the causes and effects of climate change. In an interview conducted by email, we asked Bloomberg how cities can help solve the climate crisis.
What moment, realization, or experience spurred you to focus your energy on climate change?
The connection to public health drew me to the fight against climate change. The biggest sources of carbon emissions also pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink. Tackling climate change and improving public health go hand-in-hand. And the more people see that, the more actively they demand change. (Learn about the dire warnings of the most recent National Climate Assessment.)
What are the biggest challenges we face in the fight to mitigate climate change? What is the scope of the problem?
One challenge is that the places that account for most greenhouse gas emissions—cities—don't always have the tools they need to reduce them. The more that states and the federal government empower local governments to act, the more progress we'll be able to make.
We also need to make markets more transparent regarding the risks and opportunities presented by climate change, so investors and business leaders can make more informed decisions. That will help drive capital to low-carbon investments. The marketplace can be a powerful ally in the fight against climate change.
What are the most compelling technologies being developed to combat climate change, and what needs to happen to get them advanced and adopted?
The cost of solar and wind energy continue to drop, and batteries continue to have larger capacities. All of that is good news. Electric vehicles will continue to become more common, and that will make a big difference, because transportation is the biggest source of carbon emissions in many parts of the world, including here in the U.S. The federal government should invest in a national network of charging stations throughout the U.S. interstate system. It would increase adoption of electric vehicles by helping to reassure drivers that they can always access a charge when they need one.
What are some of the renewable energy projects—of any scale—that you think have been particularly successful, and why?
More than half of all coal-fired power plants in the U.S. have closed in just the last seven years. They are closing at about the same rate under the current president as they did under the last, despite this administration’s efforts to prop up the coal industry with subsidies. A big reason: Solar and wind are beating coal in the marketplace. That’s a great success story—and it’s a reason why the U.S. has cut emissions more than any other large nation over the last decade.
The film makes the case that private sector, local-, and city-level initiatives can have a significant impact on CO2 emissions. Why do you think it's important to focus on local-scale initiatives? What role do businesses and local governments play in helping the U.S. reach its Paris Agreement commitments (or beyond)?
In the U.S., most of the decisions that impact carbon emissions aren’t made in Washington. They are made by cities, states, businesses, and citizens. Through an effort that our foundation is leading with California Governor Jerry Brown called America’s Pledge, those non-federal groups are now working together to ensure the U.S. reaches our Paris Agreement goal for cutting carbon emissions. We’re already halfway there—and we are determined to make it the rest of the way, with or without Washington.
What are the most important actions individuals can take to address climate change? What should they ask of their mayors, local energy groups, businesses, and representatives?
Vote for leaders who accept science and recognize the importance of this challenge. Call your elected officials and demand clean air and water. Start conversations in your community about why fighting climate change helps public health and the economy—and what we stand to lose unless we act. And little actions—like changing to more efficient light bulbs and painting roofs white—add up. Plus, they save money in the long run. That's the good news: fighting climate change not only makes us healthier, it saves us money—and it helps lay the foundation for stronger economic growth.