Conservation news

Data drives Bloomberg’s support for climate solutions, says Antha N. Williams

Satellite image of a portion of Everglades National Park in Florida. Courtesy of Zoom.Earth

Satellite image of a portion of Everglades National Park in Florida. Courtesy of Zoom.Earth

  • Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation launched by businessman and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is one of the world’s largest charitable organizations.
  • One of Bloomberg’s priority focal areas is the environment: specifically combating climate change by accelerating the transition to clean energy, greening the world’s cities, and protecting the health and productivity of oceans.
  • Heading up the foundation’s environment program is Antha N. Williams, who got her start as a campaigner and organizer before taking up leadership roles in the world of philanthropy. Williams says Bloomberg’s strategy is to develop programs that offer the highest leverage in terms of impact.
  • Williams spoke about her background, Bloomberg’s programs, and opportunities to drive progress in addressing critical environmental challenges during an October 2020 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation launched by businessman and former New York City mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is one of the world’s largest charitable organizations. According to the Foundation Center, the foundation’s $7.15 billion in assets in 2015 made it the 10th largest foundation in the United States that year. Bloomberg says it distributed $3.3 billion in 2019 alone.

One of Bloomberg’s priority focal areas is the environment: specifically combating climate change by accelerating the transition to clean energy, greening the world’s cities, and protecting the health and productivity of oceans. Heading up the foundation’s environment program is Antha N. Williams, who got her start as a campaigner and organizer before taking up leadership roles in the world of philanthropy.

Williams says Bloomberg’s strategy is to develop programs that offer the highest leverage in terms of impact.

“We look for measurable, data-driven solutions we can drive to help solve a problem,” Williams told Mongabay. “And in tandem we ask, how can we craft our solutions to benefit the greatest number of people?”

From an environmental perspective, this means targeting opportunities that drive change at scale, like advancing climate leadership, supporting national policies to combat destructive fishing practices and bolster marine protected areas, and empowering bottom-up approaches to natural resources management.

“In recent years, we’re feeling a lot of urgency in our work because of where the science says we need to be and the areas where we see the most opportunity – especially when our elected leaders walk away from climate commitments and progress,” Williams said. “For example, when President Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Mike Bloomberg quickly launched an effort in partnership with then California Governor Jerry Brown called America’s Pledge to measure and report the actions of the over 4,000 cities, states, and businesses still committed to addressing climate change and clean energy in the United States.

“This year, America’s Pledge found that even with Trump, a global pandemic, and economic downturn, bottom-up climate leadership has kept the U.S. on a path of climate progress – and with re-engaged federal leadership in 2021, can be back in alignment with the Paris Agreement.”

Pacific sardines. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

On the oceans front, Bloomberg has been scaling up its work via the Vibrant Oceans Initiative since 2014, employing several strategies. Vibrant Oceans is now active in 10 countries, where it is engaging a range of stakeholders.

Williams says that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped emphasize the importance of engaging local communities and governments, which in many places have provided critical resilience amid lockdowns and the disappearance of traditional top-down support systems.

“The underlying hypothesis of many of our programs is that bottom-up action is often far more impactful than top-down legislation,” she said. “COVID really adds credibility to this theory because containment of the virus has been all about communities working together to look out for one another. Mayors have been on the frontlines of COVID, and that rings true for climate, as well.”

Williams spoke about this issue and more during an October 2020 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHA A. WILLIAMS

Mongabay: How did you come to work in the philanthropy sector?

Williams: I started my career organizing grassroots environmental campaigns, which was really energizing and gratifying. Over time, I started to notice that the philanthropic sector could use some of this organizing experience. Like most people working in non-profits, a part of my job was fundraising, and I was lucky to get to know a visionary donor who supported a massive expansion in our programs. After we implemented that expansion, I moved to NYC to work for his philanthropy, the Beldon Fund. Since then, I’ve been able to direct funding to effective strategies, including a lot of organizing and advocacy efforts, and to see real impact in protecting the environment and saving lives.

Mongabay: Bloomberg Philanthropies has invested heavily in a range of environmental issues in recent years. How does it decide what areas to prioritize?

Williams: We look for measurable, data-driven solutions we can drive to help solve a problem. And in tandem we ask, how can we craft our solutions to benefit the greatest number of people? A common phrase at our office is, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” So that’s the foundation for building our programs to ensure better, longer lives. Our direction comes from Mike Bloomberg, who understands that the challenge to stopping climate change is political, not technical. So we support efforts to engage and mobilize the public and win changes in policy.

In recent years, we’re feeling a lot of urgency in our work because of where the science says we need to be and the areas where we see the most opportunity – especially when our elected leaders walk away from climate commitments and progress. For example, when President Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, Mike Bloomberg quickly launched an effort in partnership with then California Governor Jerry Brown called America’s Pledge to measure and report the actions of the over 4,000 cities, states, and businesses still committed to addressing climate change and clean energy in the United States. This year, America’s Pledge found that even with Trump, a global pandemic, and economic downturn, bottom-up climate leadership has kept the U.S. on a path of climate progress – and with re-engaged federal leadership in 2021, can be back in alignment with the Paris Agreement.

We take this same approach across all our programs – including with sustainable cities, coal and air pollution, oceans, and sustainable finance – to drive measurable action around the globe.

Mongabay: Oceans are one of the foundation’s top priorities via its Vibrant Oceans Initiative. What are its main strategies?

Williams: 3+ billion people depend on oceans to live, so we’ve always considered the protection of ocean ecosystems to be a key priority for our environment initiatives. We launched the Vibrant Oceans Initiative in 2014 as a partnership between scientists, NGOs, and governments in three countries, and now we’re active in more than 10 countries. Our main strategies are working in local communities, advocating for policy change, increasing fishing transparency in national waters, and protecting critical and highly vulnerable habitats, like coral reefs.

We constantly rely on science, data, and the latest technology to monitor our progress, guide our decision-making, and act where we can have the most impact. For example, we’ve been working with our partners to identify which reefs are most climate-resilient and should be targeted for conservation if we want to maintain spawning grounds for fish and keep feeding coastal communities.

Endangered Bluefin tuna. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

We also work with top fishing nations at the highest level to reform and enforce national policies that help stop overfishing and destructive fishing practices. In Chile, we were able to measure the recovery of jack mackerel with over 390% more fish in coastal areas. This incredible outcome in a limited amount of time highlights that governments are agents of change and regulation has an important role to play in protecting our shared marine resources.

Another cornerstone of our approach is to focus on empowering local communities to manage their resources in a scalable way. This is something that has proved even more important when countries entered lockdown due to COVID-19 and fishermen and women provided essential sources of food whilst guaranteeing a minimum level of income for their community.

Mongabay: COVID has obviously had a wide range of impacts around the planet. Has the pandemic affected the environmental strategy of Bloomberg Philanthropies?

Williams: The pandemic has reaffirmed how our economic, environmental, and social systems are intricately connected. Despite the devastating impacts of the pandemic on communities around the globe, we’ve seized the moment to recall the critical importance of science and data to uncover solutions to the crises we face while also ensuring we use this as an opportunity to build back a cleaner, more resilient, sustainable, and fairer world.

One area we’ve been focused on is how we can empower local governments and communities to make sustainable change. The underlying hypothesis of many of our programs is that bottom-up action is often far more impactful than top-down legislation. COVID really adds credibility to this theory because containment of the virus has been all about communities working together to look out for one another. Mayors have been on the frontlines of COVID, and that rings true for climate, as well. So, I’d say, it hasn’t changed our strategy, if anything it’s given us more confidence in what we do to support local leaders.

Mongabay: Here in California we’ve been besieged by record heat and fires. This is of course no surprise to scientists who for years have been warning that climate change would create conditions that heighten the risk of fire damage. Do you see fire as a bridging topic that offers opportunity to bring both sides of the aisle together to confront climate change? And more generally, do you see evidence that the public is becoming more concerned about the impact of climate change?

Williams: To your last question, yes, the public is definitely getting more educated, more engaged, and making more noise about the climate crisis. We see that in polling data, we see it in the national discourse, even in the U.S. Presidential debates, with so many pressing issues to discuss. It makes sense because it’s affecting all of us now — not just with wildfires, which have been devastating to watch, but with hurricanes, droughts, extreme heat, you name it. People are smart, and they connect the dots. And it’s a top tier elections issue, especially for young people. This is a huge step forward, and I think I speak for all of us here when I say it’s absolutely going to make a difference.

An image of California’s Camp Fire on November 8, 2018 from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite. Photo credit: USGS/NASA/Joshua Stevens

With respect to bipartisanship, I think we’ve all been waiting for the other side of the aisle to step up and acknowledge climate change, and not only that but recognize and accept that humans are the cause of it. We must also call attention to the fact that underserved communities and communities of color are the first and hardest hit by the effects of climate change. As the crisis worsens and becomes increasingly apparent, it still feels like many members of the opposing party are digging their heels in, which is a huge problem. We are not working with the same set of facts.

At Bloomberg Philanthropies, we’re committed to working with thoughtful and innovative climate champions, and we’re seeing a ton of progress at the local level. Today we’re working with state and local organizations to pass climate and clean energy policies, including 100% clean energy laws, targets and timetables to phase out climate pollution, and implementation of programs to expand low-carbon transit, speed up the deployment of electric vehicles, get pollution out of buildings, and promote low-carbon manufacturing.

Mongabay: What Bloomberg environment projects would you say have had the biggest impact to date?

Williams: One example of a philanthropy-backed climate change effort that has made great progress is our partnership with the Sierra Club on the Beyond Coal campaign, which just announced a major milestone in closing 60% of U.S. coal plants since launching 10 years ago. The campaign aims to close 100% of America’s coal plants and replace them with clean energy – and we’re on track to do that by 2030. By working alongside local activists and community groups, we have achieved extraordinary results for both the health of communities and our planet. Based on Beyond Coal’s successful model of using data to identify winning strategies and investing in strategic local partners, Beyond Coal has now expanded across the globe with grassroots Beyond Coal campaigns in Europe, Australia, Japan, and South Korea — and it feels like there’s no stopping this momentum. Even the Secretary General of the UN has put a marker down—No New Coal by 2030.

Map showing the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Mongabay: In your view, what is the best thing the average American can do to support the environment?

Williams: Vote! To cut our emissions in half in just the next ten years, which is what the scientists say we must do, we must elect political leaders who take climate change seriously and make it a massive priority. There are other things we can all do, and I try to do them, like biking instead of taking a car, eating less meat and buying fewer new clothes. But the most important solutions require sustained collective action. All of us must require businesses and governments to take strong action to cut pollution if we want to leave a healthy planet to the next generation.

View all of Mongabay’s coverage of conservation solutions here.

Header image: Microsoft satellite image showing a portion of Everglades National Park. The low-lying Everglades is expected to be affected by rising sea levels driven by climate change.