Michael R. Bloomberg


Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, issued a plan to cut the city's greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030. He's one of the few elected leaders in the U.S. implementing clear climate goals -- the other main one is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Bloomberg's plan, covering land, air, water, energy and transportation, is designed to cope with climate change and a fast-growing population. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 7, 2008.

“My eyes roll when they set 50 years as a target date. To me, it's just saying there's no target date whatsoever. What I do know is that you can make small changes today.”

What words would you use to describe the urgency of the climate change issue?

Well, there's a couple of things. Climate change clearly is happening. I don't think anybody knows for sure how rapidly. There are estimates. But you can see, if you fly into Anchorage, the glaciers way back from where they were; you see the pictures that 20 years ago they were way down the mountain.

The issue, however, is -- it's one of these things that regardless of how fast, you've got to do something about it now, because the risk of being too late to postpone until later is, I think, something that you just don't want to run.

I also think that we are confusing pollution with greenhouse gases. And the pollution is, in many senses, even more compelling to do something about it today, because it's you and I breathing the air. It's our children today that are coming down with asthma, higher cancer rates, heart attacks, those kinds of things.

So there's the long-term greenhouse gas effect of global warming; there's the short-term choking our economy, and the pollution [in] the rivers and in the air hurting ourselves today.

Would you call it a crisis?

I think there's many parts of the world where it's an enormous crisis. Just look in New York City -- we have neighborhoods where kids go to a hospital with asthma attacks at four times the national rate. I was in Beijing a month, two months ago, and you couldn't see two blocks sometimes.

Seventy percent of the rivers there are not fit to drink. Everybody thinks eating fish is healthy. It is, except that the fish are starting to have more and more mercury in it, and that's not good for you.

I think the word "crisis" is something that you have to use, because, number one, it is, and number two, you've got to get people to understand this is not something we can leave to do later on. We've got to take the first concrete steps, which we're trying to do in New York City, and lots of countries and cities and states around the world are doing.

We built our cities on coasts; New York City is no exception. What will happen here by end of century?

Projections are for, [on] average, tides being higher, for more storms coming in. I think those are things that you can deal with, you can prepare for, if you're smart. And we've tried to do that in New York City.

Hurricanes actually are relatively easy to deal with because you know they're coming, and we can evacuate the low-lying areas. We've tried to make sure we have places to put people and that sort of stuff. The danger is that storms that hit unprotected places -- parts of the world where they live in low-lying areas and live outdoors -- that's where you're going to see the big loss of life in a given storm.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] says that the U.S. must cut emissions by 80 percent by midcentury. Is that realistic?

I don't know whether doing anything by midcentury is realistic. I do know that there's nobody in government today who will be in government by midcentury. So my eyes roll when they set midcentury, 50 years from now, say, as a target date, because to me, it's just saying there's no target date whatsoever.

What I do know is that you can make small changes today. And I've always been a believer that to accomplish anything, you don't do things in a revolutionary way; you do things in an evolutionary way: If you do a little bit every day, [and] at the end of the year look back, [then] you will find you came a long ways. If you set the end-of-the-year target and say, "We've got to do that, all or nothing," you'll probably never get it done. ...

The danger is that we are banking on technological improvements which may or may not come. All of these commitments for 50 years from now say, "Oh, well, we'll have a Manhattan Project," or, "We'll invent a magic pill which will solve all our problems." We may do that. I hope we do. But that's not a good policy for protecting us and our children. What we have to do is use proven technologies today to make a start. And every day down the road, we want to go down a little bit more. There's a lot of that stuff and a lot of very simple things that you can do.

You can plant more trees in big cities like we're doing here. You can change to compact fluorescent light bulbs. You can [build] green buildings. You can switch to hybrid taxis, which we're doing. Federal government can have mileage standards for automobiles sold in the country, ... or pollution controls on power plants, stop discharging waste into rivers. These are things that you don't need science for; at best you need technology. And some of them, it's not even that. It's just the will to do it.

A lot of that is what they call the low-hanging fruit; that we can do things now that help get us down the road to less emissions. But the hard nut of the problem is power generation from fossil fuels and fossil fuels used in transport. And the fact that the scientists are telling us that we need 80 percent reductions by midcentury or we're going to cook the planet -- it's a pretty severe warning they're giving us.

It's a severe warning, but I think you've got to focus on what is actionable. We are not going to stop airplanes from flying. We are not going to stop generating power from coal. We are not going to stop having air conditioning going and blasting in the summer. We've crossed that bridge. We're not going back to living out in a tent, enjoying nature. That was a different period of time. And incidentally, life expectancy was a lot lower than it is today.

What we can do, however, is start down the path of building nuclear, building wind, building more hydro kinds of power generation ... and funding scientific projects that will work on the problem of how do you sequester CO2. There's no easy answer to that, at least none we've discovered yet. But to wait for that is ridiculous. We can do the smaller stuff. We can, for example, work on ships that generate an enormous amount of pollution. It really would not raise freight rates very much to have the big ships at sea stop polluting.

You can argue that all this that I'm suggesting are the low-hanging fruit. But, you know, there's always going to be low-hanging fruit. If you take the low-hanging fruit now, there's just another low-hanging fruit right above it. And you want to work your way up. And as technology and science gets better, some of the fruit starts hanging lower, where before it was out of reach.

Businesses are very busy now spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns to convince consumers that they are rapidly greening. How much can citizens really expect from business? You're a businessman.

... The purpose of government is to protect the public and improve the quality and length of their lives. The purpose of business is to earn money for the investors in the company, the stockholders. ... The ways you get businesses to do things that the government wants them to do is to give them an economic incentive.

And we use economic incentives all the time. Tax policy is nothing but a bunch of economic incentives built around a central theme of having to raise money for public purposes. We give you a mortgage deduction in the United States because we want you to own a home. We pay a farmer to not plow, not to grow, because we want the earth to regenerate or we don't want to flood the market with a given crop. Or we want you to drill in one place and not in another, so there's economic incentives there.

I think what you need is a carrot and a stick from the government -- incentives in some cases, regulations in others. But when it gets down to the company, somehow or other you've got to convince the company that it is in their economic interest to do it.

Now, I'll give you a good example. I gave a speech at a Rupert Murdoch conference. I don't think anybody ever thought of Rupert Murdoch as a tree hugger, but Rupert Murdoch stood in front of a bunch of his employees and said, "I am going to take News Corp" -- the company that he runs -- "green. I'm going to reduce our carbon signature. I'm going to make this a company that is more responsive to the public needs."

And he has told me since then, he has it found it easier to recruit people, because the young people want to be with socially responsible companies. So what he did was in the company's interest. I can tell you that he's got a couple young kids as well as grown kids. He's looking at them, I'm sure, and saying, "I want to have a better life for my kids." So there's a selfish component in this, if you will. He wants to leave a better world for his own family as well as maximize the returns for his stockholders.

And after he did it, my company, with me telling them to do it, the CEO of my company hired somebody to do the same thing: go around -- we have offices in 120 cities around the world -- and make them greener.

I've tried to do the same thing in City Hall. We have compact fluorescent bulbs here. We've sponsored a public-private partnership to plant a million trees in this city. We've forced the taxi industry to go to hybrid taxis. And incidentally, the taxi drivers and the owners love it. It saves them $5,000 a year in fuel costs.

That's something that's in your interest. It's something that's in Rupert Murdoch's interest. It's in the interest of companies to improve their bottom lines by being more efficient.

That's correct. Yes.

What about the fossil fuel business -- oil manufact[urers], oil exploration, coal miners, utilities?

That's where it's hard to come up with an incentive that would get an oil company, for example, to promote other kinds of fuels. So that's maybe the stick part. That's where taxation or -- and I'm in favor of a carbon tax --

As opposed to cap and trade?

Cap and trade is just one of these bait-and-switch kind of thing[s] in my mind. I think it's virtually impossible to ensure that there really are savings. And it's a very inefficient way. Somebody once said, "It's like taking three left turns instead of one right turn." Yeah, you do wind up in the same place, but it takes you an awful lot longer to get there.

A carbon tax, just plain and simple, puts the burden on those who pollute, and then they pass on the cost. And it affects their bottom line or doesn't affect their bottom line, depending on what the public wants to do. But the people who are generating the problem are the ones that are paying for the solution.

You're a politician as well as a businessman, ... but you're advocating a tax. Everybody runs in Washington when they hear the word "tax."

I've not run away from taxes. Our police officers want to get paid; our firefighters want to get paid; our teachers want to get paid.

But is it going to fly? Is it going to fly in Washington, realistically, that you can pass a carbon tax?

Yeah, sure it does. I mean, Washington does pass tax bills all the time. When we get in trouble, it takes them a while, but they eventually stand up and do what's right. And I think that we have to convince them that this is what's right and convince the public to not go after them if they do it.

If the public said, "Wait a second; if they pass that tax, my kids are going to live longer," the public might very well look at them in a much more favorable light when they address an issue that is politically dynamite at the moment, but certainly can be turned to their advantage.

But what's happening here? Because it is the oil companies, it's the coal lobby, that are running ads all the time on television. You see them on the Sunday-morning talk shows particularly about how they are providing energy, providing services, and they're doing everything they can to be green. Those companies, as you say, are going to need the stick. What is the consumer to make of all this "greenwash," as some people call it?

Number one, let's not vilify the companies. They satisfy a need. You and I buy the power that gets generated by their products. In some cases, there isn't a better technology.

Coal is a perfect example. It is a very polluting kind of fossil fuel to use. On the other hand, in many countries they don't have any alternatives -- China, for example. In the United States, our coal reserves are vastly greater than our oil and natural gas reserves, so I think it's fair to say we will use coal.

What we have to do is to find a technology that will use coal efficiently, but also in a nonpolluting way, and at the same time give them some competition. That's why I think you'll find an awful lot of the advocates for the environment have come around to the conclusion that nuclear power, given all of the different impacts of the different kinds of power generation, is probably one of the better ones. And there are companies that are gone way ahead of us.

France, for example, England, generate a lot of their electricity with nuclear. I know that's politically unpopular in most parts of the country. But if you start to explain to the public that a coal-fired plant is going to pollute the air a lot more than a nuclear plant is likely to do damage, the public probably would be smart enough to come around.

The public is a lot smarter, I think, than the elected officials give them credit for. They know there's no free lunch, and I think they will stand up for and support elected officials that tell them the truth.

Are they willing to pay?

Well, they don't have any choice but to pay. We're going to pay for everything one way or another.

What's it going to cost?

I don't think there's a way to answer that other than it will be more. But it will be more today or a lot more tomorrow. And there are benefits from it that reduce the cost. I don't know how you put a value on the fact that our kids are going to live longer, or you and I in our dotage will have a better life even if we don't live any longer, but we won't be so homebound and decrepit. We'll be able to enjoy life.

That's the other side of the balance sheet. And you do have to pay. But paying is something that, on balance, we've been doing for a long time. And if you, for example, had a carbon tax and took the revenues from the carbon tax and made this tax a revenue source that would train people for jobs of the future, net on balance, society would probably be a lot better off just from an economic point of view.

posted october 21, 2008

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