The old man and the rising seas

Michael Bloomberg wants to be the climate change candidate, but a new generation of climate activists have other ideas.

The old man and the rising seas

Michael Bloomberg wants to be the climate change candidate, but a new generation of climate activists have other ideas.

If there’s one place where billionaire and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg knows how to look presidential, it’s at the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s easy, he seemed to acknowledge during a speech at this year’s conference in Madrid, when President Donald Trump is so conspicuously absent.

“I am here because no one from the White House is here,” Bloomberg, a former UN climate envoy and a long-time bankroller of UN initiatives, told a crowd on Tuesday. He went on to tout the efforts of Bloomberg Philanthropies in rallying commitments from American “mayors, governors, business leaders, and others” to help hold up U.S. promises to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement.

While he can usually count himself as an MVP at the UN conference, Bloomberg faced some stiff competition for attention this year: Greta Thunberg. On the same day as Bloomberg’s campaign-stop-style remarks, the Swedish 16-year-old, whose school strikes for climate action have captivated the world over, garnered massive crowds everywhere she went.

“The real danger is when politicians and CEOs are making it look like real action is happening when, in fact, almost nothing is being done apart from clever accounting and creative PR,” she said onstage at one event Tuesday.

Her anger is a warning shot at the climate status quo that is embodied by people like Bloomberg.

For the past decade, Bloomberg’s name — and his checkbook — have enjoyed a place of honor in climate action circles. From his long list of roles at the UN climate conference to his work essentially bankrolling the mass retirement of American coal plants with the Sierra Club, Bloomberg has poured millions of his own personal wealth into important climate initiatives. In any other year, a candidate running for president with Bloomberg’s resume would be the obvious choice for voters worried about climate change.

Young activists are seeking to name and shame the powerful and wealthy who have delayed climate action, and potentially ruined their future.

But this is not any other year. This is the year that Thunberg graced the cover of TIME as its Person of the Year; the year that teens across the country staged “die-ins” at their elected officials’ offices; the year when climate change “suddenly” began to matter to panicked voters; the year that spawned widespread climate anxiety and worries about what the immediate future will look like as adults started listening to the kids in the room.

And these young people aren’t motivated by the idea that “a low-carbon future benefits not only public health but also economic growth,” as Bloomberg wrote in a 2015 op-ed ahead of the Paris Agreement. Instead, they’re seeking to name and shame the powerful and wealthy who have delayed climate action, and potentially ruined their future.

This is the year that Generation Z took climate action into their own hands. Their ideas look a lot different than Bloomberg’s, and they’re unimpressed with his resume, and his bank account. And as one recent tussle over an online ad shows, the clash could make for a messy road on climate for the 2020 election as old moderates like Bloomberg struggle to adjust to this new world.

The Bloomberg campaign has already started leaning heavily on his climate change credentials. In November, it bought a bulk of ad space around several climate change searches on Google. After Madrid, Bloomberg made a trip to San Francisco Wednesday to visit an annual conference of climate and geophysical scientists — a wonky appearance on a normal campaign trail, but one that cements his intent on putting an “unprecedented focus” on climate, as his website says.

But Bloomberg has already run into problems in flashing his climate creds. On Thanksgiving, organizers noticed Bloomberg’s campaign used a photograph of a New York Communities for Change (NYCC) climate protest in a Facebook ad lauding the candidate’s commitment to “committed political activism” to “winning the battle on climate change.”

NYCC wasn’t happy. “Please take this down,” the group’s official account tweeted at Bloomberg. “You are not a part of our movement....you cannot buy your way into the climate movement.”

Patrick Houston, an organizer at NYCC who leads racial and climate justice campaigns, takes up most of the ad space in the photograph as he wields a bullhorn in front of protest signs. Houston told me that seeing himself in the Bloomberg ad was “disturbing.” He noted that the picture the campaign chose for the ad was taken at a rally urging 2020 candidates to adopt a plan for a Green New Deal, something Bloomberg has not yet supported — and seems unlikely to.

“The climate fight that I work on is not aligned with much of the kind of work that [Bloomberg] has done,” Houston said. He explained that Bloomberg’s climate calling card — shutting down coal plants — actually leaned heavily on transitioning the plants to natural gas, which has come under increasing scrutiny for its intense short-term emissions.

Bloomberg’s past stop-and-frisk policies as mayor, Houston said, also largely hurt people of color, and “communities of color have often been the victims of fossil fuel extraction,” Houston said.

When I asked about the ad, the Bloomberg campaign noted that it apologized and removed the post quickly after being called out. A campaign spokesperson also directed me to the campaign’s first TV ad on climate, which was released Monday. The spot, which targets California voters, centers on the devastating wildfires in the state, contrasting Trump, a “climate change denier,” with Bloomberg, whom the ad labels a “climate champion.”

“I just think it's an incredibly dumb use of money.”
Garrett Blad, a national coordinator with the Sunrise Movement, on Bloomberg’s candidacy

To a campaign that spent $39 million on ads in just two weeks, a tiny altercation over a poorly-chosen photograph in a Facebook post may pale in comparison to the opportunity that a TV ad reaching thousands of voters in California worried about wildfires and widespread power outages represents. But for Houston, the fact that Bloomberg can spend big on ads raising climate awareness is part and parcel of the problem.

“Bloomberg is running this campaign off of his personal wealth,” he said. “We are in the climate crisis because of massive individual and corporate wealth.”

For other activists, Bloomberg’s wealth represents something even more: a missed opportunity to put his money where his mouth is on climate.

“I just think it's an incredibly dumb use of money,” Garrett Blad, a national coordinator with the Sunrise Movement, said of Bloomberg’s candidacy. “I would rather him stay putting his money into organizations led by the people most impacted by this crisis who are building the kinds of political movements that we need to win.”

Sunrise is the grassroots group of young people who have spent much of the past year making headlines as they pressure figures like Nancy Pelosi to adopt a Green New Deal. And the young activists running the movement know how a little money can go a long way, Blad says.

“We built Sunrise from scraps from the table” of other climate movements, Blad explained. “Now, we have a movement stronger than probably a lot of what [Bloomberg] has done.”

Young climate activists are also angry that world leaders procrastinated on what was actually needed well before Trump came into the picture. Most experts say that the Paris Agreement, which the Bloomberg campaign uses as the basis for much of its existing climate rhetoric, is just a starting point for the massive job ahead of us; far more drastic action is actually needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

It's not just Bloomberg leaning on tactics that seem out of place in 2019. John Kerry, who served as Secretary of State when the Paris Agreement was signed, announced last month that he'd be rolling out a new initiative to "mobilize" Americans across the country into climate action. As climate hawks noticed, the group's "all-inclusive" and bipartisan approach to pushing a climate agenda — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo diCaprio, and former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who's a notorious fan of natural gas, are all part of the effort — also studiously avoids advocating for specific solutions like the Green New Deal.

"For as long as I can remember, climate campaigns have been animated by the same basic idea: big ad outreach, lots of strange bedfellows from the military, business, or celebrity worlds, educational town halls, all pushing for broader awareness and engagement on the issue," longtime climate journalist David Roberts wrote of Kerry's efforts in Vox. "These campaigns avoid specific policies or politicians out of fear of being divisive. They seek, like Kerry, to bring everyone together around the table...it didn’t work, and didn’t work, and didn’t work, despite endless scientific reports and summaries, endless arguments and explanations, endless validators from different communities, endless accumulation of new science and evidence."

As Roberts notes, young people have repeatedly seen a bipartisan approach to solving the climate crisis fail, and are more than willing to skip the consensus farce and call out bad actors by name.

There’s also the simple question of imagery. Thunberg, Sunrise activists, and other young people have helped create a powerful new visual message for the climate movement. A photo of a despairing, angry teenager, or thousands of impassioned activists marching on the street, makes a much more dynamic ad for climate action than images of windmills or solar panels — images that the climate movement has struggled with for years to make compelling to voters. If activists reject you as a candidate, can you still use their faces and energy to make your point? What would it take to win them over?

I asked Houston what it might take for him to support Bloomberg. If his campaign came out with a full plan to adopt a Green New Deal tomorrow, for instance, would he support that?

“Well…” Houston paused. For the first time since we started talking he was at a loss for words, trying to picture the billionaire working for the intersectional and radical change his activism demands.

“Let me put it this way: Bloomberg is the status quo,” he said finally. “I find it difficult to imagine him taking action that is drastic enough to address the climate crisis.”

Molly Taft writes about climate change for Nexus Media News. Her work has also appeared in Vice, BuzzFeed, and CityLab.